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.

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