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.


Hunter Furnish said...

The J.K. Rowling documentary doesn't seem to be on Netflix, which is disappointing because I'm interested based on what you wrote. Oh well. I agree with you on the extended Avatar. The new footage was really cool, but it didn't change the movie like, for the epitome of extended editions, Lord of the Rings. The beginning Earth scenes were intelligently cut from the theatrical release. They're cool scenes to see, but not needed for the film. In Blu-Ray, though, man are they amazing.

And yeah, the Harry Sally 2 trailer was pretty awesome. Billy Crystal rocks. Love the blog, keep it up!

Andrew D. Wells said...

The J.K. Rowling doc can be found as the main feature of the special features disc of the 2-disc "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" special edition DVD or Blu-Ray. It isn't a typical special features doc though. It was made for British television I believe, by a genuine filmmaker, not some studio stooges putting together a "this movie was so great to work on" promo.