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. 

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