Thursday, April 28, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 22-28

Tangled (2010) ***½
Directors: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Writers: Dan Fogleman, The Brothers Grimm (fairy tale)
Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett

I feel that Disney is getting better and better at producing their classic style of family fare. They’ve switched from their traditional hand drawn style to a CGI for their latest foray into musical fairy tales with “Tangled”. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re done with the hand drawn style, but the visual style has no effect on the final product this time out. The movie is filled with wonderful characters informed greatly by the vocal performances. Moore and Levi sound as if theirs were created to be Disney leads, and Donna Murphy provides a surprisingly beautiful voice for a particularly nasty villainess. “Tangled” is everything you come to expect and desire in a Disney fairy tale.

Howl (2010) ***½
Directors/Writers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Andrew Rodgers, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams

“Howl” is one of the most unique bio-pics I’ve ever seen. All of the dialogue spoken in the movie was actually spoken by the people being portrayed. Its words were taken from performance recordings, interviews and court transcripts. In fact, it isn’t a bio-pics of American beat poet Allen Ginsberg so much as it is a history and visualization of his most famous poem, “Howl”.

James Franco plays the writer Ginsberg in scenes from a performance of the poem and an interview he gave when a lawsuit was brought against its publisher. Franco proves the dictum that an actor need not look anything like the person he’s portraying to convince an audience that he does with the proper embodiment of his subject’s personality. His speech patterns are affected to the same cadence as Ginsberg’s, but it never feels like imitation.

The poem is visualized with animation that brought to mind Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. I tried reading “Howl” once and was tested to understand it. The animation is an invaluable interpretation that was apparently originally conceptualized by Ginsberg himself before his death.

The story of how “Howl” came about is told through the court case against it. We are given a courtroom drama portrayed by the other actors in the film that depicts the hearing over whether “Howl” was a piece of pornography or art. These scenes are pretty one-sided on the issue with a series of “expert” witnesses arguing that it is either literature or porn. Those against its legitimacy as art appear to be pretty close-minded, while those in support of it come across as both intellectually and morally enlightened. However, it’s hard to imagine these different viewpoints as being portrayed in any other way.

Arthur (1981) ***½
Director/Writer: Steve Gordon
Starring: Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, John Gielgud, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, Jill Eikenberry, Ted Ross, Barney Martin, Thomas Barbour

Having missed the remake in theaters, I decided to watch the original “Arthur” through Netflix Instant. It’s a refreshing break from typical Rom Com values. I’m not sure that an alcoholic is really someone to look up to, but even in that sense Arthur is an interesting hero. It wasn’t as funny as I remember it being from 30 year ago. I think at that time a drunk was more funny than sad, not so anymore. But, it’s in its more serious moments that the story really clicks.

Even in 1981, it was John Gielgud who stole the show as Arthur’s butler Hobson, even going so far as to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. Their relationship is more grown up than most adult relationships depicted in comedies. Even though Arthur acts like a child, there’s an understanding and economy in their dealings with each other that is unique and true.

Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) *
Director: Bud Yorkin
Writer: Andy Beckerman
Starring: Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, John Gielgud, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, Paul Benedict, Cynthia Sikes, Kathy Bates

And then, after Dudley Moore’s star had risen and begun to fall, they decided to give him a second shot at his most popular American made character. The results are a rather pathetic attempt to recapture something unique through imitation and tired formula. I was shocked to realize that much of the new “Arthur” material (from what I can gather from the trailers anyway) was culled from this disappointing sequel.

The two elements that I know about include the notion of Arthur trying to work for a living. The other borrowed element is the new film’s take on the woman Arthur was supposed to marry in the original. That character was played by a fairly quiet Jill Eikenberry in the original film, but recast in this one as a somewhat psychotic jilted ex who won’t let go played by Cynthia Sikes. Jennifer Garner’s scenes in the trailers seem much more like the latter version of the character than the one seen in the original film.

I do hope whatever moron thought it would be a good idea to have John Gielgud appear as a vision, independent of thought and action, to a drunk Arthur never worked in Hollywood again. I’m guessing it wasn’t actually the screenwriter’s idea. I’m sure he was just following orders from some clueless studio exec who couldn’t envision a second “Arthur” without the best character from the original.

Bottle Shock (2008) ***
Director: Randall Miller
Writers: Jody Savin, Randall Miller, Ross Schwartz, Lanette Pabon
Starring: Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Dennis Farina, Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriguez, Rachel Taylor, Miguel Sandoval, Eliza Dushku

Is it saying something that I’ve watched three movies in a row that involve alcohol as a major aspect in their storylines? “Bottle Shock” is a rather sweet innocuous movie that loosely retells the true story from 1976 of a blind tasting between French wines and those of the Napa Valley in which French elite enthusiasts chose not one, but two of the American vineyards’ stock over the French. The event made world headlines and opened up the wine market to become a global phenomenon.

The movie sports a wonderfully unlikely cast, including a pre “Star Trek” Chris Pine as a leftover hippie who can’t seem to live up to his father’s standards, and Alan Rickman as the host of the wine tasting who understands that Americans “don’t like me because I’m British, and you’re not.”  It also contains some beautiful photography of Napa Valley and makes for a less pretentious companion piece to “Sideways”.

Emmanuelle (1974) ½*
Director: Just Jeackin
Writers: Jean-Louis Richard, Emmanuelle Arsan (novel)
Starring: Sylvia Kristel, Alain Cuny, Marika Green, Daniel Sarky, Jeanne Colletin, Christine Boisson

I’ve always had the impression that the original “Emmanuelle” was some sort of turning point for erotic cinema. Major film critics reviewed it at the time of its theatrical release, with Roger Ebert even giving it a positive review. As a cineaste I supposed it might be a sort of bridging film between art and pornography. After seeing it, I can safely declare it is not.

Despite some beautiful soft focus photography, “Emmanuelle” could’ve only ushered in the worst traits in soft-core porn, such as pseudo-intellectual reasoning for absurd situations in which to have sex. The characters are all full of their own ideas and blind to the ridiculousness of what they have to say about sex. Perhaps the characters sound less idiotic in their original French, but that couldn’t fix the plot.

The hackneyed excuses they give in this film for being sexually free with anyone they come across gave way to any excuse to depict sex in soft-core that repeatedly tries to convince their audiences that they offer some sort of value beyond the pornographic, when really it’s all just an excuse to get off on sexual fantasy. There is very little cinematic value to be found within “Emmanuelle”. I would posit that the only thing this movie ever provided the world was the birth of Skinemax… er, that is to say Cinemax late night programming. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 15-21

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) ***½
Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Writers: Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Judy Barrett (book), Ron Barrett (book)
Starring: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris

I just love this movie. I can’t explain it. It doesn’t have the depth of a Pixar film, but its humor is broad and subtle, outrageous and universal. I love the moment where Sam asks Flint if he can keep a secret and he flat out honestly tells her, “No.” There are so many unexpected moments like that one that are so nonchalantly thrown out there for the audience to discover. There’s plenty of broad humor in it, right there in the audience’s face, but it’s those subtle moments that keep me cackling every time I see this movie. And, my kids love this movie, so I’ve seen it several times.

RoboCop (1987) ***
Director: Paul Verhoven
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O’Herlihy

I remember being very impressed with “RoboCop” when I was younger. Not because of the cool sci-fi vibe of it all, though, but because it was so unabashedly and graphically violent. I remember revisiting it a couple years after I had initially seen it and being shocked by its gore violence. By today’s standards, it’s not so shocking, but it’s still pretty damn violent.

Although “RoboCop” has dated to a pretty extreme degree—the costume designs and score are saturated in 80’s notions of the future, which were really just exaggerations of what was popular at the time—watching it does give me an appreciation for the simpler storytelling techniques employed at the time. Today most action plots exist in extreme complexity. The editing, the plot twists, and even the general structure of today’s film storytelling practices seem to think that in order to make the audience think they’re seeing something new, you have to keep them in the dark for as long as possible as to what is really going on. “RoboCop” has secrets and betrayals as well, but instead of trying to confuse the audience with over-editing and over-plotting, it simply goes about telling it’s story, revealing any twists naturally rather than trying to surprise.

Throughout most of my film watching experiences, I was under the impression that the 80s were a pretty poor era for quality filmmaking. Lately, I’m starting to see all the things that the 80s got right in cinema.

When in Rome (2010) *½
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Writers: David Diamond, David Weissman
Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Kate Micucci, Alexis Dziena, Danny DeVito, Angelica Huston

Harrumph! Romantic comedies always seem to elicit that response from me. No other genre is so frustrating in its insistence on sticking to its formula lock and key. I suppose this one adds an interesting premise by introducing the Fountain of Love in Rome, from which the main character removes coins that hold the wishes of several men to find their true love. She then becomes the object of their desire. The fact that the man she’s in love with isn’t actually under the spell isn’t as much of a surprise as the filmmakers have fooled themselves into believing, however. But, other than the four men chasing her around New York City making her life even more difficult than a typical Rom Com heroine, every bit of action and misunderstanding happens right on queue from the Rom Com rulebook. As usual, it would only take a word or two that could be addressed at any given moment in the screenplay to clear up any of the heroine’s doubts.

Another problem I had with this movie is that the production values resembled something put together by a well-funded stage theater company rather than a major Hollywood studio. The sets looked like sets. The extras looked like people who were being paid to stand around in the background. The soundtrack was strangely absent of background noise. And, even the film quality looked like something inferior by Hollywood standards.

Cleopatra (1963) **
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, Plutarch (histories), Suetonius (histories), Appian (histories), C.M. Franzero (book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra”)
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, Gregoire Aslan, Andrew Keir, Robert Stephens, George Cole, Jean Marsh, Kenneth Haigh, Cesare Danova

“Cleopatra” is infamous as one of Hollywood’s biggest bombs. That’s interesting since it made almost $20 million dollars more than it cost to make. It did take 7 years to get there, however. But, what of it’s critical reception? It was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 4. It lost in all the major categories.  It also indisputably posted the first $1,000,000 payday for a female actor.

Now that history has had its way with what was once promised to be the jewel of Hollywood, how does “Cleopatra” stand? Not very well, I’m afraid to say. It’s four-hour running length is just that, lengthy. Like many an epic, it has enough story for that running time, but Mankiewicz and the directors hired to replace him after he was fired were unable to find the right compelling moments to carry the movie along.

Most disappointingly, there really isn’t much about Egypt in this tale of her Queen. Oh, there’s a whole lot about the Roman Empire. There’s even more about Cleopatra’s love affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. There are even some compelling passages about Cleopatra’s manipulation of the Roman Empire, and Caesar’s successor, Octavius’s revenge against Antony and Cleopatra, an invasion of Egypt. There’s just surprisingly little about Egypt herself, or what kind of ruler Cleopatra was. But, most of all, it’s dull.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) ****
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carriére
Starring: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankuer, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle OgierStephane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Julien Bertheau, Milena Vukotic

I’ve been reading for years about the brilliance of Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. I never could’ve imagined how underrated this hilarious dark comedy truly is, though. It is one of those quirky, weird, trippy movies that depicts strange people and strange goings on, but it lacks much of the gloom that is often associated with similar subject matter. It’s a very upbeat dark comedy, where the ‘dark’ is not to be taken literally, but rather refers to the more selfish nature of the human soul.

Buñuel has a great deal of fun exploring his characters’ fears through their dreams. He also shows them constantly trying to eats meals always to have them interrupted by some inconvenience or odd absurdity. Some of these interruptions are typical everyday things, some venture into the realms of insanity. Although Buñuel takes aim at the upper class, I think his comedy applies more universally today than it might have at the time he made it. It seems none of us have the time to fulfill our simple basic needs anymore, and our fears of failure or betrayal rule much of our lives. In that sense our capitalistic society has succeeded in making everyone a member of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.

Restrepo (2010) ***½
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Starring: The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team

There have been many documentaries made about our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but few like “Restrepo”. This one stations the audience in the mountain bunkers of what is known as the deadliest valley in Afghanistan with the U.S. soldiers and observes. Its only agenda is to show what everyday life is like for our combat soldiers. It does not offer commentary on what we see. It merely reports by showing us up close images of deadly combat and having the soldiers recount their experience in their own words.

The doc was co-directed by photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed this week while covering another bloody conflict in Libya. Hetherington was a British citizen who studied photojournalism at Oxford University. “Restrepo” was his first foray into directing and producing. He previously worked as a cameraman on the documentaries “Liberia: An Uncivil War” (2004) and “The Devil Came on Horseback” (2007). His photo work has appeared in several books examining men in combat and his latest film “Diary” is a highly personal project that has been a hit in the festival circuits.

Hetherington was a journalist in the classic sense. He reported news without commentary and he reported on subjects that were not easily accessible to the public at the risk of his own life. His fate was part of the path he chose, a sacrifice he made to help us make the world a better place. This loss is tragic.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Scream 4 / *** (R)

Sidney Prescott: Neve Campbell
Dewey Riley: David Arquette
Gale Weathers-Riley: Courteney Cox
Jill Roberts: Emma Roberts
Kirby Reed: Hayden Panettiere
Deputy Judy Hicks: Marley Shelton
Charlie Walker: Rory Culkin
Robbie Mercer: Eric Knudsen
Trevor Sheldon: Nico Tortorella
Rebecca Walters: Alison Brie
Olivia Morris: Marielle Jaffe
Kate Roberts: Mary McDonnell
Deputy Perkins: Anthony Anderson
Deputy Hoss: Adam Brody

Dimension Films presents a film directed by Wes Craven. Written by Kevin Williamson. 111 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, language, and some teen drinking).

The truth is I’ve never found any of the “Scream” films to be all that scary. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re good movies. On the contrary, I’ve very much enjoyed three out of the four of them.  The thing is, they aren’t really horror movies. They’re slasher movies, yes. But, they’re so steeped in self-parody that spoof is closer to their proper genre than horror.

Take the pre credits opening to “Scream 4” for instance. This time out we get six victims pre credits in three separate openings from three different movies. While the first “Scream” merely had Drew Barrymore fooling audiences into thinking she might be a major character before making her the very first Ghostface victim within minutes of her introduction, this time we get Lucy Hale (“Privileged”, “Pretty Little Liars”) and Shenae Grimes (“90210”) as the first two victims. Until, we realize that they aren’t the first two victims at all. They’re the first two victims in the sixth movie within the movie, “Stab”, originally based on the events depicted in the first “Scream” movie, now only “made up” so the studio can squeeze every penny they can out of the franchise.

We discover this because the two girls watching it at home stop the movie to argue about how redundant the “Stab” series has become. They are played by Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”) and Anna Paquin (“True Blood”). They argue the relevancy of many horror conventions and then… Well, I leave that for you to discover, but I will reveal that it turns out these two aren’t real victims either, but rather their argument represents the opening to the seventh “Stab” picture. Again this fact is revealed when two more girls (Aimee Teegarden of “Friday Night Lights” and Brittany Robinson of “Life Unexpected”) are revealed to be watching the movie at home and stop it to further discuss the merits of the slasher genre.  These are the real first victims of “Scream 4”. So, it has become a parody of a parody of what was originally a parody to begin with.

Confused? Well, don’t worry. Once the movie really starts, it is handled with the efficiency and well-explained slasher tactics of all the previous “Scream” movies. Therein lies the strength of Wes Craven’s self-parody opus. Everything in them can be explained by knowing what always happens in horror movies, and all the characters in these horror movies have actually seen horror movies. This makes for what is still, after four movies, pretty interesting interplay between the victims and their killers during the typical slasher picture dénouement. Even the cops have seen horror movies and realize just seconds too late when they’ve made a fatal mistake.

Ten years have passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, “When Will I Be Loved”) was last targeted by any killer wearing a Ghostface mask. She has returned to Woodsboro, the location of the original killings, on the last leg of her book tour to promote her new self-help book. Dewey (David Arquette, “Eight-Legged Freaks”), the hapless deputy from the trilogy, is now sheriff of Woodsboro. His wife, Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox, “Cougar Town”), the reporter who broke the original case, has settled into small town life for better or for worse. When evidence from the real pre credit victims show up in the trunk of Sidney’s car, the trio are back on the case.

It appears that Sidney is not the only target of this film’s Ghostface. He wants to take vengeance on all of her family, including a cousin she barely knows, Jill (Emma Roberts, “Nancy Drew”). Being in Ghostface’s sights also puts all of Jill’s friends into jeopardy. I’d go on about the cast, but it would only resemble a list and reveal nothing further about the film. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t really matter who is who so much as how and why they all meet their bloody ends.

Craven does a great job keeping any survivors from attacks squarely in the potential killer column by having each candidate show up at key moments around each attack. This makes "Scream 4" fairly unpredictable in terms of who and why, which is nice. Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”) do a much better job “breaking the rules” in number four than they did in number three. Yet, somehow, they’re able to “break the rules” by adhering to them. It’s really quite brilliant what twists they come up with in the final act of the movie.

The most refreshing aspect of all of the “Scream” movies is that the characters are intelligent, rather than the typical nitwits that usually populate slasher films. I like the primary cast members of “Scream” and it’s surprisingly fun to return to another mystery with them. Craven’s knowledge of the genre allows him to be cheeky and smart at once. He never lets this material descend into camp, however, which permits it to remain a cut above the typical spoof and play like a legitimate slasher flick.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Your Highness / ** (R)

Thadeous: Danny McBride
Fabious: James Franco
Courtney: Rasmus Hardiker
Isabel: Natalie Portman
Leezar: Justin Theroux
Belladonna: Zooey Deschanel
Julie: Toby Jones
King Tallious: Charles Dance
Boremont: Damian Lewis

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Danny R. McBride & Ben Best. Running time: 102 min. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, and some drug use).

Remember getting together with four or five of your closest junior high school friends in your parent’s basement, stocking up on Cheetos and Mountain Dew, pulling out your favorite Dungeons & Dragons character to do battle with the beasts of the land, and spending most of your time bitching about how when you’re older they’d all understand that you guys had it right all along; and all those parents and jocks who ridiculed you for wasting your time on kids stuff would see that true social skills amounted to nothing compared with knowing how to wield a broadsword with dice. Did you think those were the best years of your life? Are you still in you parent’s basement? Or have you graduated to LARPing on a regular basis? If so, you may think “Your Highness” is the best movie you’ve ever seen. If you’ve grown up just a little, you may want more out of your stoner/fantasy/action/comedy.

I’ll admit it. I was one of those geeks huddled in the basement clinging to a 20-sided dice like it held the secrets of the universe. I still drink the Dew. As such, I had high expectations going into the new Danny McBride movie “Your Highness”. I knew that David Gordon Green, who gave us the great stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” from a couple years back, directed it. Green was also responsible for the discovery of McBride’s unique talent when he cast the funnyman in his indie romance “All the Real Girls”. I knew McBride and his writing partner from the HBO series “East Bound & Down” had scripted it. I’ve enjoyed most of the recent comedic efforts of James Franco. And, it’s hard for me to turn down a movie with both Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel in the cast. The resulting movie from all these excellent elements isn’t totally terrible, but the whole is not the sum of its parts. It isn’t even a sum of fractions of them.

McBride plays Thadeous, the youngest son of King Tallious (Charles Dance, “Last Action Hero”). Thadeous wearies of the exploits and conquests of his older brother, the heir to the throne, Fabious (Franco, “Date Night”). The king wishes Thadeous would apply himself with the same heroics as the prince. When Fabious’s bride-to-be, Belladonna (Deschanel, “500 Days of Summer”), is kidnapped by his arch nemesis, the wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux, “Mulholland Dr.”), the king decides that Thadeous might have a better chance of finding his potential by accompanying his brother on a quest to rescue the princess. Thedeus brings along his servant, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), who seems like he could’ve been the most interesting character, but is never given much of a chance to shine.

Most of the movie’s laughs come from the screenwriters’ insertion of modern slang into the mouths of these fantasy characters, who otherwise speak in an elevated version of English that you might expect in a Medieval setting. That joke wears thin after a while, however. The screenplay also plays against the expectations behind certain fantasy character types. At one point, the brothers visit the “Great Wize Wizard”. This character isn’t human. It’s a little unclear just what he is, but it’s obvious that the filmmakers attempted to design him as a poorly constructed muppet. Perhaps fantasy films like “The Dark Crystal” inspired the character, but the puppeteer work on the wizard is not up to the standards established by Jim Henson. The Great Wize is also a pervert who likely sexually abused Fabious as a little boy. This joke is a little too uncomfortable to be funny.

Eventually, Isabel (Portman, “Black Swan”), who has reasons of her own for wanting Leezar dead, joins the trio on their quest. Portman brings credibility to the story as a fantasy action heroine. She also brings along the shock and awe of the fact that Oscar winner Natalie Portman has no problem being a potty mouth. By this point in the film, any legitimate attempt at presenting this material as a serious fantasy story is ridiculous. Even the glorious photography by Tim Orr is lost to the script’s crudities.

Having been in that basement with a painted figurine in front of me to represent my dwarf fighter, I can understand what the filmmakers are going for here. It’s funny to see a fantasy villain trying to crack casual jokes at wildly inappropriate moments. Plus, the conventions of fantasy-based heroics are ripe for ridicule. Unfortunately, too much of the movie’s comedy falls on one crude note, and many of the jokes cross so far over the border of good taste that they’re less funny than they are disturbing.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 8-14

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeffrey Boam, George Lucas, Menno Meyjes
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, Julian Glover, Michael Byrne, John Rhys-Davies, Kevork Malikyan, River Pheonix

We’ve gotten to the point where I am no longer introducing my boys to my own childhood movie favorites. They’ve made them their own. My boys are Indiana Jones crazy. I think Indy is their favorite movie hero, although the Ghostbusters are a close second. Gone are the days when I say to the boys, “I’ve got something I want you to see.” Now it’s, “Dad? Can we watch this tonight?” And if I don’t comply, nothing else will satisfy them in the same way.

The interesting thing is that it seems all their favorites are from my childhood. I don’t believe this was the case when I was a child. However, as an adult, I do seem to like my dad’s westerns with an enthusiasm that’s different than the joy I get from any other movies. But, my favorites as a kid were “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Superman”, “Back to the Future”, “Gremlins”. Along with Indy and Ghostbusters, my boys love “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, and “E.T.”. Is it because I guided them that way? Or is there something about the adventure movies of thirty years ago that is just inherently more appealing than today’s adventure films?

To be totally honest, my youngest has the same passion for “Cars” that I had and they share for the movies mentioned above. But, considering the amount of new movies they’re exposed to by having a cineaste for a father, you’d think they’d become obsessed about modern movies as much as older ones. It’s a mystery.

Shall We Dance? (1996) ***½
Director/Writer: Masayuki Suo
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Yu Tokui, Miromasa Taguchi, Reiko Kusamura, Hideko Hara

I love this quiet little charmer of a movie. I’m talking about the original Japanese version of “Shall We Dance?”, not the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez remake—still unseen by me. I first saw it at the Roger Ebert Film Festival almost ten years ago. It resembles a great many Japanese films that study the uniqueness of the Japanese people by juxtaposing an unusual life choice against the ordinary, structured lives of Japanese culture. These movies are happy without being overly exuberant in that Hollywood tradition where life is fun all the time, and the characters have to keep up with it all. Japan’s happiness seems to be a found thing, not something thrust upon them.

Of course, with the recent tragedy in Japan, their people are much upon the minds of the world at the moment. I wonder about the impact the destruction to their country will have on their film community. From what I can tell by the lack of articles I’ve seen written about their vibrant film culture, I would guess the still tumultuous situation there is not near where most Japanese film companies are based. Even so, they’ve always made movies that dramatically reflected their society. It is very likely their tragedy will soon be reflected in the subject matter of the films they make. Godzilla was born out of a reaction to the nuclear devastation brought upon them by our bombs in World War II. I wonder what monsters will rise from their current nuclear crisis. I hope it won’t stop them from making quiet, life affirming movies like “Shall We Dance?”, however.

The Wild Bunch (1969) ****
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah, Roy N. Snicker
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sánchez, Emilio Fernández

I read an article the other day that supposedly listed the 50 greatest westerns of all time.  The compiler of this list was not so shortsighted as to not include Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece in the list, but the fact that it wasn’t in the top ten was questionable, especially with “Heaven’s Gate”, “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, and “Dead Man” listed ahead of it.. Those first two are good westerns, but better than “The Wild Bunch”? Really?! And “Dead Man”? “Dead Man”? Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”? I’m not gonna hate you for liking Jarmusch’s cerebral, tangential take on the most American of genre’s, but better than “The Wild Bunch”? C’mon!

William Holden’s fading cowboy/outlaw was very much a metaphor for the Hollywood he came up in. Holden may have been the last of the leading men cast in that classic mold. That square-jawed, matter of fact demeanor went the same way as the classic cowboy at the very same time. “The Wild Bunch” was it’s last dying breath. It would soon be replaced by the rebellious Hollywood new wave, whose looks weren’t much better than those of the self-appointed Mexican law or the posse running down the wild bunch in this film. Like the posse, this new Hollywood was lead by sure hands like Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg, who understood the old Hollywood, but they were also essentially responsible for delivering its deathblow.

Read the controversial best western list here. (Neither version of “3:10 to Yuma” is on it anywhere. I mean, Really!)

Shadowboxer (2005) *½
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: William Lipz
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Helen Mirren, Vanessa Ferlito, Macy Gray, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mo’Nique, Stephen Dorff 

Since everyone seems to be Helen Mirren crazy these days, I thought it was finally time to sit down with a copy of her infamous movie “Shadowboxer”, which a friend gave to me a couple years ago because he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore. In it, Mirren and Cuba “Show Me the Money” Gooding Jr. play hitmen and lovers who grow weary of their business when they’re hired by a scoundrel to kill his wife and unborn child. Instead, they take the woman and child in as part of their very odd family.

Directed by Lee Daniels, who brought us the wonderful “Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, “Shadowboxer” is the most earnest portrayal of the most absurd material I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Mirren and Gooding is odd, to say the least. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to put the May-December coupling in the context of contract killing and a demented character like that portrayed by Dorff puts the whole movie off kilter from frame one. It’s interesting. I’ll give it that. Too bad it’s also just plain bad.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sucker Punch / ** (PG-13)

Baby Doll: Emily Browning
Sweet Pea: Abbie Cornish
Rocket: Jena Malone
Blondie: Vanessa Hudgens
Amber: Jamie Chung
Blue Jones: Oscar Isaac
Dr. Vera Gorski: Carla Gugino
High Roller/Doctor: Jon Hamm
Wise Man: Scott Glenn

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder & Steve Shibuya. Running time: 109 min. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language).

A girl in an outfit that looks like some sort of sailor’s whore house fantasy jumps twenty feet into the air over a giant iron oriental soldier with a Gatling gun. She distracts him by throwing her samurai sword as she draws her automatic pistol and unloads a clip into the giant’s eye.  Light bursts out of the giant’s wound and the real life anime fantasy chick lands on the concrete like Neo out of “The Matrix”, creating an indentation in the ground. The giant soldier falls to the ground and takes down the giant oriental temple around him. The girl walks away as if none of this affects her physical reality. It’s the ultimate Hollywood slow motion shot, where the heroine walks away from an explosion as if nothing is going on behind her.

What does all this mean? Well, I think the filmmakers would appreciate it if you didn’t obsess over such things. The scene described is a fantasy dream sequence, and it seems the whole purpose of everything that happens in Zack Snyder’s new film “Sucker Punch” is to transport the audience to these fantasy dream action sequences that are more focused on video game style interplay than with any sort of actual meaning in the context of the rest of the story.

But, what is that story? It’s a fairly simple one. It had better be, because the movie spends less than ten minutes on what is actually going on before it descends into a multileveled dream sequence. Baby Doll (Emily Browning, “The Uninvited”) is left with her sister and an abusive stepfather when her rich mother dies. When she rebukes her stepfather’s advances, he turns on Baby Doll’s sister. Baby Doll attempts to protect her sister with a gun, but shots fired in desperation can fly wild. The death of the younger sibling allows the stepfather the opportunity to commit Baby Doll into an insane asylum where a morally challenged orderly can arrange for a lobotomy and the stepfather can have the estate for himself.

I suppose the first dream level is prompted by the presence of Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, “Race to Witch Mountain”), who promotes performance therapy for “her girls.” You might miss that fact, however, if you’re too distracted by Snyder’s ever-moving camera. We don’t really meet the other inmates until we’re already imbedded into the first dream world. These girls will become Baby Doll’s chance of hope for escape. They are, the leader Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, “Limitless”), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”), the very brunette Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, “High School Musical”), and Amber (Jamie Chung, “Dragonball: Evolution”).

In this level the girls are slaves for a male entertainment business run by Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac, “Robin Hood”), the orderly from the real world. They perform “dances” for his clients that are choreographed by the housemistress Gorski. However, Baby Doll’s dances are so good they need no guidance. Snyder wisely never shows her dance. Instead, when she dances, she’s transported to the second dream world where she receives advice from the Wise Man on how to escape her captors. The advice is so pedestrian and unspecific, I would think any five year old could’ve handled the duties. It’s too bad Scott Glenn (“Secretariat”) had to sully his resume with the role.

It’s also on this second dream level that the girls do battle with the aforementioned giant samurai statues, as well as zombie WWI German soldiers who run on steam, a castle full of orcs and a very angry dragon that looks like something from “The Lord of the Rings”, and faceless futuristic robots on a bullet train to some Asimov inspired city. All the girls are skilled combatants who fight in such skimpy outfits most superheroes would be embarrassed to wear them. All the while, Glenn’s Wise Man urges them on with words of base simplicities that offer no real wisdom whatsoever.

The problem with “Sucker Punch” is that the elements that tie these different realities are so slight. Why are the patients of the asylum adult entertainers in their shared dream world? Is the doctor seriously allowing them to play out this male fantasy in her therapy sessions? To what end? What is the point of any of the action that takes place in the second dream level? How come none of the visits to that level seem to have anything to do with the last? Did Snyder just think it would be cool to see the scantily clad women kick ass in four completely unrelated scenarios? Well, the answer to that last one is obviously ‘yes.’

Finally, Snyder’s ending is absurdly bogus. He spends the entire film telling Baby Doll’s story from her unique perspective. Then in the movie’s final moments, he flat out tells the audience through Baby Doll’s voice over, of all things, that this really wasn’t her story at all, but someone else’s entirely. It’s a cop out designed to provide both an uncompromised ending and a happy one at the same time. And, if anyone can explain Scott Glenn’s appearance in the final shot of the movie, well they deserve the highest honorary degree awarded from BSU.

On the other hand, the movie is a vision to look at. The photography and design of the film is stunning. It is cinematic ballet. “Art” without any discernable point, mind you. I’ve spoken of the Cinema of Style before, as exemplified by movies like Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City”, Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”, and Snyder’s own “300”. In these movies, their style is the primary point. The visionary style is the film’s substance. Yet, with “Sucker Punch” the film’s style doesn’t sustain it’s substance. It’s dialogue is too didactic, it’s plot too juvenile and absurd; and it relies too heavily on it’s action sequences, which have so little point you can’t help but ask “Why?”

Friday, April 08, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 1-6

First Blood (1982) ****
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Writers: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, David Morrell (novel)
Syarring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbott, Chris Mulkey, John McLiam, Alf Humphreys, David Caruso

“Huntin’? We ain’t huntin’ him. He’s huntin’ us!”— Mitch, played by David Caruso

“First Blood” was merely a stepping-stone for David Caruso on his way to becoming the one liner king as Lt. Horatio Caine on “CSI: Miami”, but his Mitch remains an integral part of this action classic. There are quite a few obvious observations, like the one Mitch made above, but these clichés don’t really detract from this surprisingly emotional take on the treatment of veterans after Vietnam. Sylvester Stallone’s monologue in the final scene is raw and probably the best acting work he’s put on screen. Ted Kotcheff’s direction is fairly textbook television style, but it’s efficient and firm. And, I now miss seeing Brian Dennehy in a new movie each month.

J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (2007) ***
Director/Narrator: James Muncie
Starring: J.K. Rowling

As a writer, this frank portrait of one of the most successful writers in history is fascinating. While not incredibly in depth about any one aspect of the life of Rowling, it does a good job of covering her entire life up through the release of the final book in the Harry Potter series. She talks about her youth and family life, we see the final moments of writing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, she talks about the tough financial decisions necessary to a famous writer with millions, we see her discomfort with some of the aspects of her fame, and she relates how all of her life has affected the Harry Potter series. Perhaps the strongest feeling I get from this movie, however, is Rowling’s love of writing. It is her gift and her salvation. She may be done with Potter, but we haven’t read the last words Rowling will write yet.

Avatar: Extended Cut (2010) ****
Director/Writer: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao

I’ve allowed a good deal of time to pass before revisiting the phenomenon that is James Cameron’s “Avatar”.  One reason for that is because I knew the initial DVD release would not include everything Cameron wanted audiences to see. Last fall’s re-release of the movie with a Special Edition in theaters confirmed my suspicions and the release of “Avatar: Extended Collector’s Edition” on DVD and Blu Ray last November queued me into finally nabbing the sci-fi extravaganza for my personal home library.

Are the 16 added minutes necessary to the viewing experience of “Avatar”? Unlike the special edition of his undervalued “The Abyss”, no, the extra footage adds no deeper meaning to the original theatrical release. They don’t take away from the story either. The new footage is just as visually stunning as the original, and the whole thing is just as beautiful in 2D as in 3D.

I don’t believe the extended opening sequence that begins with our hero, Sully, on Earth would’ve worked as well with the 3D as the original did. In the original release Cameron used the audience’s inexperience with the format as a way to emphasize the unique experience of space’s weightlessness, and then he threw the discombobulated viewers into the massive world of Pandora. This virginal effect would’ve have been lost a bit with the extended Earth-bound sequence preceding the space effects.

Watching the entire movie confirms my original admiration of the material. Cameron’s dialogue may be basic, but his storytelling is top notch and never in better form than when dealing with science fiction material.

Rififi (1955) ****
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Auguste le Breton (also novel), Jules Dassin, René Wheeler
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici, Dominique Maurin, Magali Noël, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Perlo Vita

The center action sequence in the noir heist picture “Rififi” is the heist itself. But, to call this an action sequence might be giving the wrong impression. The heist in “Rififi” tries to recreate, not the exciting Hollywood model of theft, but rather the tedious amount of time a break in requires. As with many safe-crackings depicted on film, the one depicted here takes hours, but in “Rififi” the audience feels the hours almost as the thieves do. From their careful chiseling through the floor using devices to mute their tools from a sound activated alarm, to the hours of drilling into the safe just to set up a cutting device that also requires a great amount of time to work, “Rififi” gathers all of its tension by watching the clock.

The French movie, directed by blacklisted American director Jules Dassin (who also plays the Italian safecracker under a pseudonym), is a near perfect example of both the film noir and heist genres. It has good men gone bad through desperation, femme fatales, and hardened criminals countering the criminal acts of the protagonists with more evil acts. It also has a good deal of humor, as Dassin is not afraid to develop the personalities of his thieves as men who have hopes that drive their crimes. They don’t just steal because it’s their nature.

When Harry Met Sally 2 (2011) ****
Director: Lindsay Crystal
Writers: Howie Miller, Michael Foley
Starring: Billy Crystal, Helen Mirren, Rob Reiner, Adam Scott, Mike Tyson

I don’t normally review movie trailers. I believe the only trailers I’ve ever reviewed were fake. Since the new streaming video “When Harry Met Sally 2 with Billy Crystal & Helen Mirren” on is presumably fake, I felt it would make a good exception. My first thoughts upon seeing this movie were to wonder why we have allowed Crystal to go so long between providing the world with some good laughs.

Although primarily a mock trailer, “When Harry Met Sally 2” also provides a framework to suggest how such an unlikely sequel could come about. The trailer for the fake movie gives us a good glimpse into the current mindset of Hollywood and a very good laugh or two at the Hollywood machine’s expense. Crystal and Mirren are at their comedic best and there are some nice cameos to go around for Rob Reiner (the director of “When Harry Met Sally…”) and Mike Tyson. Adam Scott (“Parks & Recreation”) continues to impress with his subtle smirk as the Hollywood exec who suggests some “tweeks” to the typical romantic comedy model.