Monday, May 30, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides / **½ (PG-13)

Captain Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp
Angelica: Penélope Cruz
Captain Barbossa: Geoffrey Rush
Blackbeard: Ian McShane
Gibbs: Kevin R. McNally
Philip: Sam Claflin
Syrena: Astrid Berges-Frisbey
Scrum: Stephen Graham
Captain Teague: Keith Richards

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Suggested by the novel “On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers. Based on characters created by Elliott & Rossio and Stuart Beatie and Jay Wolpert, and on the Disney World amusement park ride. Running time: 137 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo).

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy took the series through an entire life of evolution. Beginning with “The Curse of the Black Pearl” as depthless fun that mixed good action sequences, lighthearted humor and somehow mild horror into the mix, the series then morphed into an epic special effects extravaganza that offered criticism about the modern financial world of corporate rule in the form of the East India Trading Company in “Dead Man’s Chest”. Finally, it veered into the surreal and overblown of “At World’s End”. Is there any place else for these pirates to go? Not really. And so, the latest episode, titled “On Stranger Tides”, finds the crew into fairly familiar territory.

With the exit of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the series, the hero duties fall squarely on Johnny Depp (“Alice in Wonderland”) as Captain Jack Sparrow. After being brought to London to investigate reports of someone impersonating him, Jack finds the British government is still out for his head. While that’s not so shocking, the fact that Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”) is now under the employ of the mad King George is. Equally shocking is the identity of Sparrow’s imposter, a woman named Angelica (Penélope Cruz, “Nine”), who is naturally a former flame of Jack’s.

The reason for all of this activity is that the British have gotten word that the Spanish have discovered the location of the Fountain of Youth. Sparrow was last seen in search of it, so everyone wants him close. That doesn’t mean they have to be nice to him. Angelica is under the employ of another—the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, “Deadwood”), who possesses a sword that can control the riggings of ships through its wielder’s thoughts. Angelica captures Jack and this high seas adventure is under way.

Many of the winning elements of the “Pirates” franchise have returned. There are the swaying allegiances. Jack finds himself in the service of Blackbeard, but his first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally, “Valkyrie”), is helping Barbossa and the British Navy. This allows for the same types of double crosses and triple crosses that peppered the previous films.

There’s also a touch of the supernatural, perhaps not as well used as it was previously. Not enough is done with Blackbeard and his magical sword. The sword’s biggest contribution to the story is something that we never see, the theft of The Black Pearl from Captain Barbossa. Barbossa retells the tale, but the sword’s magical powers are little seen. It is also said that Blackbeard has the ability to turn people into zombies, a facet of his skills that is never explored beyond the undead brutes he employs.

The other supernatural element is the introduction of mermaids to the “Pirates” mythology. The mermaids turn out to be the most interesting aspect of the new film. These aren’t your typical Disney mermaids that sing and long to be real humans. Oh, they sing all right. They sing, and they attack, and they have sharp teeth, and they drag unsuspecting sailors to the bottom of the sea and drown them. These mermaids are nasty. Blackbeard captures one named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, “The Sea Wall”) with the help of a captured missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin, “The Pillars of the Earth”). These two prove that even monster mermaids can fall in love. It is a Disney movie after all.

The main crutch of the story, though, is Depp’s Sparrow, who makes for an odd hero. The story starts out with Sparrow being typically selfish, but in its closing moments finds him making truly heroic gestures. I think Sparrow works better as a foil for the hero than as the hero himself.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” delivers on the summer blockbuster fun that it promises. It’s a swashbuckling adventure that retains the spirit of the series. Unfortunately, the lack of any true heroic character—aside from the missionary and the mermaid whose roles are not large enough—places too much of the weight of the story on the generally comic character of Sparrow.  Because of this the comic moments aren’t quite as sharp and the genuinely original character of Captain Jack Sparrow is softened. It’s still a grand adventure, but it’s not quite as fresh as it once was.

3D Side Note: This is the only movie I’ve seen in 3D this year, so far. It’s the only one I plan to see in 3D until maybe “The Adventures of Tin Tin” at Christmas. Unlike most live action 3D, “On Stranger Tides” was shot using 3D cameras. Because of this the 3D is clear and crisp throughout every frame of the picture. It is the best looking 3D movie I’ve seen since “Avatar”. Most live action 3D movies were shot in 2D and converted. While the studios are getting better at the conversion process, converted films tend to look murkier than ones shot in 3D. Many theaters are offering both 3D and 2D screenings of the big blockbusters this year. I highly recommend you do your research before shelling out the added price for 3D tickets to make sure you’re only paying the extra for movies that were shot in 3D.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: May 20-26

The Secret of Kells  (2009) ****
Directors: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Writers: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski
Starring: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Liam Hourrican, Paul Tylac

The Oscar nominated animated cartoon “The Secret of Kells” reminds me that animation is a format that is different than live action. So many of Hollywood’s animated films, Pixar included, approach storytelling in the same manner as their live action fare, with a heavy emphasis on plot. “The Secret of Kells” has a plot, yes, but it is much more about the graphic art used to tell that tale.

The plot is so very simple. It involves a walled city with a bishop, or some such religious figure, as its leader. He is focused on keeping the marauding hordes from entering the dwellings of those under his protection. His son discovers he has a gift for creating story-telling art, but his father wishes him to do as everyone else in the village and build their wall. Most of all, it is forbidden that he, or anyone, should step outside the protection of the city. Of course, the boy does and discovers a girl spirit in the woods. She shows him where to find the best berries for making ink. The boy’s defiance of his father’s rules is discovered and you can pretty much guess where it goes from there.

Where is goes, however, is so much less important than how beautiful that journey is. This is not a CGI movie that approximates some odd-shaped version of reality. It’s very stylized two-dimensional art that has texture and details that don’t reflect a realistic environment. This is what animation is for. So many people say that animation is to tell a story that can’t be told with live action, yet animation has gotten so close to live action that they even have actors act out roles to motion capture the animation. What’s the point of that? This is animation as a stylistic choice. This tale could be told in live action, but you’d miss all this beautiful art.

Rabbit Hole (2010) ***½
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire (also play)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh

I can understand why someone might think, “A movie about a couple trying to cope with the death of their child? Yeah, I don’t want to see that.” I had “Rabbit Hole” for a week before I finally committed and put it in the Blu-Ray player. What makes a movie like this worth watching is what you don’t know going into it. You know it’s going to be sad. You know the couple is going to have trouble coping. One will be in denial. One will be pushing the other too much.

What is unexpected in this one are the ways in which the script realizes what the characters don’t, that their perceived isolated experience isn’t so isolated. The rest of the woman’s family is affected in unexpected ways. Her mother lost an adult child. Her sister has just become pregnant.

The child was lost in a car accident and this story remembers that someone else was involved in that as well. He’s a high school kid. I like that he doesn’t drive any more. Not much is made about this fact. He rides the bus. Someone else drives him to the prom. There’s nothing to say he will never drive again, but it’s right that he needs time to recover from the tragedy before he can think about getting behind the wheel again.

Is there anything truly surprising here? Not really, but there are great performances by Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Sandra Oh as another parent recovering from the loss of a child, Diane Wiest as Kidman’s mother, and Miles Teller as the high school kid. Yes, it will probably depress you, but it ends with hope.

Roadkill (2011) **
Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Rick Suvalle
Starring: Kacey Barnfield, Diarmuid Noyes, Colin Maher, Ned Dennehy, Eliza Bennett, Eve Macklin, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Stephen Rea

The day I’ve dreaded has finally come. I find myself in the position of criticizing a movie that a friend of mine held a major role in creating. Now, if I liked the movie, none of this would be a problem, and that is why I eventually had to accept the notion that I had to include it in my Penny Thoughts. If I’m willing to say I like something that a friend of mine made, I have to be willing to say that I don’t like it as well.

My friend is Rick Suvalle, the screenwriter of the SyFy original movie “Roadkill”. While this may sound like a copout, I don’t blame Suvalle much for the problems I had with this movie. I will say that the introductory passages in this road trip monster horror flick are filled with a little too many clichés of the genre, even down to including a token black character. Suvalle may have been playing at these clichés, however, since he abandons cliché when it comes to the order of death for these characters. I’ll have to ask him if he was inspired by the movie “Feast”, which also breaks the rules of who can die when in a horror movie. Suvalle’s ending is also a stroke a perfection rarely seen in a made for TV movie.

Most of my problems had to do with the restrictions of a made for television production. Reaction shots were either cut short or non-existent. There are almost no establishing shots in the entire production. And, there are some missed opportunities when it comes to commentary by the characters on the events as they are happening. Most of these deficiencies have to do with time restrictions placed upon the production for commercial breaks. The special effects are also somewhat lacking for a creature feature, but I’ve seen worse.

Considering the restrictions, the filmmakers actually get away with some fairly gritty horror moments. As far as SyFy productions go, this is the best original production I’ve seen from the network. I’ll admit I haven’t really seen that many, but “Roadkill” is a hell of a lot better than “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus”. I’m sorry if that’s not a very high bar to measure against, Rick.

On a side note, Rick has a wonderful blog about being a stay at home dad to two beautiful girls in the City of Angels with the surprising title of “I Peed on My Kid!” Read it here.

The Illusionist (2010) ****
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Writers: Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet

It seems this is the week I catch up with the foreign made cartoons that should’ve won the Best Animated Feature Oscar for the past two years. “The Illusionist” comes from the same director as “The Triplets of Belleville”. It boasts an original screenplay credit for the great French filmmaker Jacques Tati, coming from an unproduced screenplay of his. Tati was best known for a series of films starring his alter ego, a character named Monsieur Hulot. Sylvain and Tati are a good match, since neither are very focused on dialogue. They’re more about actions.

“The Illusionist” is a little more somber than the Hulot films I’ve seen, and certainly something calmer than Sylvain’s previous, “Belleville”. It proves how inconsequential dialogue can be to storytelling, however, as it tells the story of a dying breed of artist. It follows an illusionist that you can tell once captivated audiences with his magic tricks, but now plays to dwindling audiences and as second fiddle to flashy musical acts. The band he follows up on one gig bears a good resemblance to The Beatles.

On a small gig in Scotland he catches the eye of a young woman who follows him away from her sorry existence as a barmaid. Their journey together also proves that the old is being replaced by the new in life as well as entertainment. Soon the illusionist must let her free to the younger model in men. Although, it isn’t exactly an upbeat story, Sylvain’s visuals are just as stunning as in “Belleville”, and the story proves even stronger.

Gulliver’s Travels (2010) *
Director: Rob Letterman
Writers: Joe Stillman, Nicholas Stoller, Jonathan Swift (book)
Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, T.J. Miller

When Jack Black fell down on top of an unfortunate Lilliputian who disappeared between Black’s cheeks, the tone of this adaptation was clear. This was delightfully funny to my boys, but particularly disturbing to myself, especially since they never showed the little guy being removed at any point. I shudder to think that this is how my boys will think of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel.

Western of the Week

The Outlaw (1943) *½
Director: Howard Hughes
Writer: Jules Furthman
Starring: Walter Huston, Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell

Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw” is best known for the fact that Hughes used his engineering skills to design an underwire bra to better emphasize actress Jane Russell’s “assets.” The results drew the ire of the Hollywood Production Code Administration, which blocked the film’s release for some time and forced Hughes to cut a minute and a half of footage from the final product.

The problem is the movie really isn’t very good. It involves a fictional relationship between Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid and the woman that comes between them while they’re on the run from Pat Garrett. The movie doesn’t really know how to handle these real-life characters as it alternates between treating them like the infamous outlaws they were and treating them like comic buffoons. Even the score by an uncredited Victor Young alternate between something you might hear in a Looney Tunes cartoon and something from an overblown Harlequin style romance.

The HPCA might’ve been more worried about the film’s use of innuendo as much as it was concerned about audiences ogling Russell’s breasts. There are a few scenes where I was waiting to hear the guitar warble associated with a porno as the picture faded to black. Sexism is on blatant display as Russell is treated like a piece of property traded between the two criminals. There is a rather humorous scene, however, as the two bicker over which is more valuable to them, a horse or the girl. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is funny.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thor / *** (PG-13)

Thor: Chris Hemsworth
Jane Foster: Natalie Portman
Loki: Tom Hiddleston
Erik Selvig: Stellan Skarsgård
Darcy Lewis: Kat Dennings
Agent Coulson: Clark Gregg
Odin: Anthony Hopkins

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne. Story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich. Based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence).

During my junior year of college I was invited to join the Hofstra cast of Alpha Psi Omega National Theater Honor Society. During the induction ceremony the active members chose to assign a virtue to each of the inductees and one member spoke on how the virtue applied to the inductee. Humility was my virtue. A very dear friend of mine spoke of how it pertained to me. I wish I could remember exactly what she said, but I remember that I never understood the meaning of humility until that moment. It was the first time I ever felt unworthy of the words that were being said about me. Until that point, I equated humility with embarrassment. My friend made me realize that while embarrassment is a selfish emotion, humility is a selfless trait. That is the lesson the Marvel Comics character Thor must learn in the latest entry into the superhero movie genre.

Thor is a God of the realm of Asgard. Thor’s father Odin has ruled Asgard through a great war with the Frost Giants, but is hesitant about passing his throne on to his headstrong son. Thor’s brother, Loki, could also be named to the throne, but he seems to quietly support Thor.  When the three Frost Giants break into Asgard, Thor demands vengeance for breaking their truce. Odin insists on diplomacy. Urged on by Loki, Thor steals away to the Frost Giants’ realm to exact his revenge. Upon his return, Odin exacts his own form of punishment on Thor—banishment. He strips Thor of his powers, including the use of his magical Hammer, Mjölnir. He sends the hammer to Earth with Thor with a spell cast on it that will only allow someone with the character his son should embody to lift it.

I was never a big fan of the Thor comic book because I found so little to relate to about the character. He’s a Norse God who speaks in High English. He fights other Gods in different, often magical, realms. And when he comes to Earth, he never really seems to fit in. Director Kenneth Branagh, that master of Shakespeare film adaptation, is a rather inspired choice to bring this deity-oriented world to the screen. He handles the Asgard scenes with the appropriate amount of ceremony and reverence. With the help of his excellent production designer, Bo Welch (“Edward Scissorhands”), he provides an Asgard with all the grandeur a realm populated by gods demands.

The desert location to which Thor finds himself banished is in stark contrast with the brightly colored Asgard. Other than the scientist Jane Foster—who discovers Thor while conducting research on temporal anomalies in the atmosphere—and her impertinent assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings, “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist”), there is very little color in New Mexico. Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) continues her post-Oscar run of appearing in half of all 2011 releases as Jane, Thor’s love interest. Their particular Meet Cute involves Jane hitting Thor with her van repeatedly.

Also along for the ride on Thor’s adventures in the Earth realm is Jane’s mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig. Stellan Skarsgård (“Mamma Mia!”) is somewhat under utilized as the good doctor, which suggests Marvel has more in store for him in their upcoming “The Avengers” movie. Also appearing from the rest of the Marvel Universe movies is S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, “Iron Man”), who takes a keen interest in Thor’s hammer and why nobody seems capable of lifting it.

But, these are merely the details of “Thor”. What really struck me about Branagh’s vision and the screenwriting team’s script is how they were actually able to make me care about this character that I’d never really enjoyed before. Much of this is due to the casting of the relatively unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Hemsworth is probably best known for his brief role as Captain Kirk’s father in the latest “Star Trek” movie. That role did suggest he might have the chops to carry a film, this one proves it.

Equally impressive is the casting of another relatively unknown British actor, Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s deceptive brother, Loki. Hiddleston worked closely with Branagh on the BBC television series “Wallander”. While Portman and Anthony Hopkins as Odin add important star power, it’s these two untested leads that carry the weight of the story.

Thor’s banishment to Earth is the key to the character’s success. Before we get to see him do too much superheroing, we see him stripped of his powers, and he must learn to be a normal human before he’s given his superpowers back. Hemsworth has quite a balancing act to pull off here. We have to accept him as the arrogant God of Thunder before we see him earn his mantle. Much of the comedy of the movie comes from his oblivion that he shouldn’t walk around Earth acting like a god. Yet he’s able to sell his transformation from a supercilious brat into a more humble version of a prince that commands the power of the gods.

There is a danger that, with its two vastly different settings, “Thor” could come off as two different movie mashed into the same film. Branagh expertly avoids this problem by showing his hero and villain gods with the same human weaknesses as the earthbound characters. Loki is manipulative and cruel, but we also feel sympathy for him and his predicament as the proverbial second fiddle to Thor. What we end up with is a peak into a world completely unlike the one we know but with the same passions and triumphs that we look to find in our own. Instead of Thor coming across as a hero better than everyone else, he becomes one who strives to be something better than he already is, and therein lies the usefulness of humility.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: May 13-19

Red (2010) ***
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, Warren Ellis (graphic novel), Cully Hamner (graphic novel)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, James Remar

I hear people here and there calling for an end to Bruce Willis’s smirking, bald-headed, everyday tough guy. They say they’re sick of the Willis shtick. I say, C’mon. How can you get sick of this guy? Sure he’s picked some real clunkers over the years, but when he’s in a good script with his shtick, you just gotta love him. I mean, who else can just step out of a car spinning out of control on the road and unload a barrage of bullets into the SUV who sent his car into its spin, drive the guy off, and sell it?

Pairing Willis off with the indelible charm of Mary-Louise Parker is just about the greatest casting decision of the 2010 movie season. Those types of casting smarts also explain the presence of John Malkovich with a good dip of crazy and Helen Mirren with a whole bottle of whup-ass. I gotta give props for Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, and Rebecca Pidgeon as well. Morgan Freeman is really just a safety here.

Honestly, I don’t really know how good the writing is for this movie because the actors just make it so good. What an insulting thing to say about the writing, especially coming from a writer, but the casting is so sublime I have to admit I just enjoyed watching these people on the screen together. Gene Siskel once said that one of his criterion for whether a movie was any good or not was imagining if a documentary with these same actors eating lunch would be more entertaining than the movie they’re in. I don’t know if they were just eating lunch here or what, but this movie is entertaining.

Hamburger Hill (1987) *½
Director: John Irvin
Writer: James Carabatsos
Starring: Anthony Barrile, Michael Boatman, Don Cheadle, Michael Dolan, Don James, Dylan McDermott, M.A. Nickles, Harry O’Reilly, Daniel O’Shea, Tim Quill, Tommy Swerdlow, Courtney B. Vance, Steven Weber

War may be hell, but there’s no reason to make watching a war movie hell. I have no idea how accurate this movie is in terms of what it was like to be a soldier in the Vietnam War. I imagine it’s a pretty good representation, but as a piece of drama it’s terrible. It’s just the same two scenes repeated over and over throughout the course of a two hour running time. The soldiers shoot at things and get themselves blowed up. Then the soldiers sit around and contemplate why they’re there. Then they fight again. So the cycle goes. How boring.

It’s funny, because you can see all the elements that you find in any war film. There’s the rookie who gets killed almost immediately. There’s a grizzled vet on the edge who can’t handle seeing another kid die. There’s the short timer who doesn’t have a chance of making it because they’re going back into the toughest war zone they’ve ever seen. There’s the letter or tape recording from home reminding everyone of what they’re missing. There’s the rock on his third or fourth tour because he can’t handle the real world anymore. There’s the true protagonist who survives the whole ordeal without really having a whole lot to input because his purpose is to be the eyes of the audience. And, there are various other characters filling typical types who will drop dead in a particular order in gruesome ways like teenagers in a slasher flick.

Even a great war flick like “Platoon” has all these same stopping points, but it has something else that “Hamburger Hill” lacks—variation. “Platoon” has an altering pace, shifting emotional levels, and dramatically different structure from one scene to the next. The battles in Hamburger Hill” are all the same. The down points in between consist purely of the platoon sitting around talking, even when they’re in a brothel. No one has any unexplained depths. This movie is relentless, like the war itself, but flat in terms of dramatic artistry.

Monsters (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

“Monsters” was one of the most buzzed about movies of last year. It’s a low budget sci-fi thriller about a future where alien life forms have infested an area of our planet between the U.S. and Mexican boarder. It teases the audience with the alien’s presence rather than throwing them in our face like most off the shelf sci-fi flicks. This is greatly due to the film’s budget, but it works in the film’s benefit to greater emphasize the movie’s mood and themes.

After it’s initial praise there was a backlash of criticism against it accusing the plot of simply being a Meet Cute between the main characters with the alien infestation as a backdrop. The people who said this know little about genre pictures. Any good genre movie is never about what it’s about. Sci-fi exists to offer a commentary on our current societal order in the context of some sort of fantasy adventure. That is exactly what “Monsters” is. Its commentary on U.S. immigration policy isn’t exactly subtle, but also like any good genre film, the external story works even if you don’t notice its thematic elements.

There’s also a larger statement made about the psychology of America as a whole. With the giant wall constructed by the U.S. government to keep the alien lifeforms out, the filmmakers are saying something profound about the self-imposed isolation of our country from the rest of the world. We may be the greatest country in the world, but our pride drives us to block the rest of the world out, deprive it from our resources, and in turn deprive ourselves from the resources of the rest of the world. We are the most capable to help the world, but we do a great deal to shelter our citizens from that world that we should embrace and help.

Of course, the fact that the infestation does spread into our borders suggests that such isolationism is a futile endeavor that will eventually fail. Are we going to let that failure destroy us, or will we embrace our responsibility and do what’s best for everybody? Yes, I got all that from this rather intricately contrived Meet Cute.

The Batman: The Complete Fifth Season (2007-08) **½
Creator: J.D. Murray
Starring: Rino Romano, Alastair Duncan, Evan Sabara, Danielle Judovitz, Kevin Michael Richardson

When producers set out to revamp the Batman animated series after the success of “Batman Begins”, they decided to approach the series with very strict rules. The characters had radically different designs and origins. The first two seasons had Batman going solo. Batgirl was introduced before the boy wonder. They slowly worked the Batman mythos as we’ve come to know it into their original concepts.

In the final season, they decided to focus on Batman’s partnerships with other DC Universe heroes like Superman and Green Arrow, with a heavy emphasis on Batman’s role co-founding the Justice League. Unfortunately, this line takes the series too far away from Batman’s biggest strength as a superhero, his detective skills. Alien invasions and superpowers might be fun, but they take away from what makes Batman a strong hero. The World’s Greatest Detective has never really been one of Batman’s handles during this particular series, but in the final season it is even less of a factor.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ***
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce

When Disney announced that they would be making feature length live action movies out of their amusement park rides, it sounded like a sad joke. With the release of Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” it was. But, “Pirates of the Caribbean” proved that this company that built itself on entertaining the world still knew what it was doing.

It also relaunched the career of Johnny Depp, a leading man who preferred character roles. Depp’s career had never really slumped since his quick rise to fame in the late 80s, but he’d never achieved the a-list stardom that “Pirates” flung him into. Depp is one of his generation’s greatest actors, along with Robert Downey, Jr., who would find his career in the same type of overhaul with the success of “Iron Man” Perhaps the key to each of these actors’ mid-career success lies within the fact that they each love the characters that brought them their superstardom.

Depp has been quite vocal about how much fun he has playing Captain Jack Sparrow. I believe therein lies the success of the “Pirates” franchise as a whole; they are a whole bunch of fun. I like that Disney was not afraid to let Gore Verbinski take their property into fairly dark waters, yet he still keeps it fun. “Pirates” was the first Disney property under the Disney banner to be awarded a PG-13 rating. It was a gamble the worked for the House of Mouse. With the fourth entry in the series just released, it was a roll of the dice that has kept on rolling.

The Insider (1999) ****
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Eric Roth, Michael Mann, Marie Brenner (article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”)
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Toboloksky, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn

There’s a scene in “The Insider” where whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand talks about how when Tylenol found a problem with one of their products they immediately and at their own expense pulled it from the shelves. He’s using this concern for consumer safety as an example of just how bad the big tobacco companies are in their insistence that they are unaware of any health risk from cigarettes. He intimates that no other companies could have such a lack of responsibility toward their clientele. I fear that today, not even twenty years later, the corporate mindset has shifted closer to the etiquette of big tobacco.

Later, Lowell Bergman, the CBS news producer who convinced Wigand to speak out, tries to assure his source that his sacrifice will have an effect on the world. Has cigarette consumption dropped in the intervening time? I don’t really know, but it seems the horrors that Wigand revealed about big tobacco’s practices have been widely ignored. Big tobacco did have to pay out billions in damages to many states, but nothing has really seemed to change about their business practices. Does anyone really believe they stopped putting addictive elements into their product? I don’t. I just thank my stars that I never developed a tobacco addiction. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) ***
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Tom Hollander, Kevin R. McNally, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Naomie Harris, Jonathan Pryce

Jerry Bruckheimer is infamous for his overblown approach to making movies. His productions always have his signature take of overdramatized action. Slow motion and tinted colors work with his action to produce a Michael Bay dream of ridiculously emotional action. But, Bay is not the only director who works for Bruckheimer. I believe Tony Scott really developed the Bruckheimer look, by Bay brought it to new levels of dreck. What happens when a gifted director like Gore Verbinski is let loose in the Bruckheimer style, though, is actually somewhat good.

The “Pirates” material may be the best suited to this fantasy action style because it’s so fantastic to begin with. “Dead Man’s Chest” is the perfect example of a sequel taking the production to another level. It’s bigger, grander, with more action, more effects and more twists. In many ways this one is the best of the trilogy. Remember my theory about the second episodes in trilogies. It’s primary weakness being that it ends before the story is over, but it leaves you wanting more. Isn’t that one of the things we ask for in good entertainment?

Read my original review here.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) **½
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, Jack Davenport, Kevin R. McNally, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Chow Yun Fat, Johnathan Pryce

And, it is with number three that we learn the lessons of excess. There is a such thing as too much of a good thing. “At World’s End” is by far the strangest and most abstract of the “Pirates” trilogy. Verbiniski and Depp give the audience new ideas to think about, but they’re pretty far out there and pretty far away from the action oriented hijinks that roped audiences into the “Pirates” series to begin with. The sequence of rescuing Jack from Davey Jones’s Locker stretches the bounds of what mainstream audiences will accept in their mindless entertainment.

Yet, those left field ideas are probably the best moments from this third film. As far as the plot and action of the movie go, this one tries to one up the series a second time, but the second film had probably pushed its action and plot as far as it could go. The plot has too many twists and turns and the action sequences go on too long to the point of monotony. Still there are the great characters that first shaped the series, and it’s good to see them in yet another high seas romp. I could just do with a little less excess.

Read my original review here.

Western of the Week

Lonesome Dove (1989) **
Director: Simon Wincer
Writers: William D. Witliff, Larry McMurtry (novel)
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Frederic Forrest, D.B. Sweeney, Rick Schroder, Angelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Tim Scott, Glenne Headly, Barry Corbin, William Sanderson, Barry Tubb, Gavan O’Herlihy, Steve Buscemi

From what I’ve always heard of the greatness of “Lonesome Dove” as one of the pinnacles of the western genre, my two star rating here may be considered as some form of sacrilege. It really isn’t a very good movie, however. It includes unnecessary scenes and characters. Some of the sequences are executed with a strange goofiness that goes beyond typical television inadequacies. Yes, there are some good moments about how harsh the west was, but the cons outweigh the pros here.

Robert Duvall turns in another great performance as Gus. Although it takes a while for him to get warmed up, Tommy Lee Jones also provides a good performance as Woodrow. Danny Glover’s character on the other hand is a gross caricature of the Negro’s role in the west. He’s obviously there to be a sympathetic character, but he never does anything. He serves no propose but to suddenly and redundantly emphasize the unfairness of the west. And, Frederic Forrest’s renegade Indian is just about everything that Hollywood ever got wrong about Native Americans all rolled up into one giant negative stereotype.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hanna / **** (PG-13)

Hanna: Saoirse Ronan
Marissa: Cate Blanchett
Erik: Eric Bana
Isaacs: Tom Hollander

Focus Features presents a film directed by Joe Wright. Written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr. Running time: 111 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language).

“Hanna” begins in the winter wilderness. There is a girl hunting with a bow and arrow. This is Hanna. She kills a buck and starts the process of cleaning the animal out in an open field of snow. A man appears behind her and tells her that she’s dead. They fight. The man eventually overpowers her, but their fight feels like training. For ‘what’ is as much of a mystery as who these people are.

This is how we begin the unusual espionage thriller “Hanna”. I’m not sure ‘espionage thriller’ is really the proper label for this story that somewhat defies categorization. But, that’s the right area. Hanna’s mystery unfolds slowly, much slower than the action and pace of the film. This is good.

I don’t think it would benefit the reader for me to outline much of the film’s plot. It’s filled with too many secrets to be revealed. The audience should discover those themselves. I will reveal that the man is indeed training the child. He is an asset for a secret government agency. Her mother is dead from some sort of agency related incident. When the girl is ready to enter the world, he calls his agency and leaves. A woman working for the agency is very interested to find the girl when her agents go looking for the man, but the girl quickly escapes. And, that will be all of that.

Director Joe Wright is about the last director I would expect to produce the material found in “Hanna”. Wright’s credits include one of the most recent and best adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and the WWII period romance-tragedy “Atonement”. A spy thriller doesn’t just spring up from that sort of pedigree. Yet, what Wright creates with “Hanna” is a unique thriller, filled with mystery and his distinct visual flavor, proving that he is a multi-facetted director who might be part of the upper echelon of great directors of this generation.

Like I said, “Hanna” isn’t exactly a spy thriller. It also contains elements of science fiction. Watching it I got the distinct impression that Wright might be a fan of such sci-fi classics as “Silent Running” or “The Omega Man”. The government facility that Hanna escapes from gave me the same vibe as those films without actually referencing them. The themes of the film—considering the fact that Wright is British—are more likely derived from such sources as the ITV series “The Prisoner”. “Hanna” also resembles last year’s spy thriller “The American” in the way it meticulously depicts the routines and choices of its characters. “Hanna”, however, is a more fantastical take on the genre with much more kinetic action than the cerebral motifs of “The American”. In fact, the action of “Hanna” is intense enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. The electronic score provided by modern techno masters The Chemical Brothers builds upon this intensity.

Instead of dipping into the typical action acting pool, Wright cast the film from his own pedigree. Saoirse Ronan, as the titular character, comes from Wright’s own “Atonement”. Ronan is a rising talent who furthers her reputation as a powerful young player with her apt and often cold performance as a girl who is much more than what she seems. Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth”) fills the role of the agent in charge of capturing Hanna and her father, bringing more to it than your typical James Bond villain. While Eric Bana (“Hulk”) has tackled a little mainstream action before, his experience fuels those elements that inspire suspense within the action itself, making for action scenes that serve the plot rather than existing for their own sake. Tom Hollander (from Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice”) provides what would be the typical villain’s stooge in another movie, but here comes across as something more sinister.

“Hanna” is a different kind of spy film that shows that Joe Wright is a different type of director that can do different styles and genres with the same amount of success that he achieved with his initial period romance material. The way Wright combines traditional spy filmmaking elements with a unique sci-fi flare and the same amount of attention to the look of the picture as with his period material proves his diversity as a director and his value as an auteur. While “Hanna” is more than satisfying in its own right, it also has me excited to see just about anything that Wright will produce in the future.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: May 6-12

Stagecoach (1939) ****
Director: John Ford
Writers: Dudley Nichols, Ernie Haycox
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill

Although John Wayne had already accumulated 78 previous film credits to his name, “Stagecoach” feels like his introduction to the screen. His introduction in the film says it all. Director John Ford’s camera swoops in toward him, long before such a shot was common in film, and says, “Here’s your star. This is the one to watch.”

The movie itself is thrilling and exciting. It doesn’t slow down much as it follows an oddball bunch of passengers on a stagecoach journey through dangerous Native American territory where Geronimo is on the warpath. I’m not sure how such a plot should be viewed in today’s PC society, but I’m pretty sure that the more hostile Indian tribes did occasionally attack early American settlers. So, there you go.

I believe the plot is rather intelligent in those regards, since most of the warring happens off screen and is between the Army and the Native Americans, while the travelers are really just caught in the middle. I found that despite the fact that many westerns since this classic have borrowed and outright stolen from it, it’s still fresh and held developments I didn’t see coming. “Stagecaoch” is truly one of the greats of its genre.

High Noon (1952) ****
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writers: Carl Foreman, John W. Cunningham (magazine story “The Tin Star”)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Caney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley

It’s true. I’ve gone this long without seeing the western classic “High Noon”. One of the reasons I hadn’t gotten around to it until now is that I’ve heard many say that it isn’t as great as it’s often portrayed. I’ve heard the stories about how Gary Cooper’s performance was wooden because he was sick during filming. Many of the Hollywood elite criticized the movie as being an attack against blacklisting, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks who made “Rio Bravo” as a conservative answer to “High Noon”. More about that later.

I found the movie to be non-traditional, with an original plot line that saw a sheriff abandoned by those he’s sworn to protect when a man he put away returns for his head. It isn’t even that simple, however. Its moral points are argued pretty fully by both sides throughout the film. Many try to argue to support the sheriff, but in the end he’s left to defend himself alone.

Much has also been made about the film’s “gimmick” of telling the events in real time. The running time of the film is the same amount time as the events depicted. This would eventually lead to entertainment like television’s “24”. “High Noon”, however, doesn’t really draw much attention to this contrivance, which doesn’t allow it to become a distraction. Unlike, “24” the plot of “Noon” doesn’t outreach the real time gimmick.

Rio Bravo (1959) ***
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, B.H. McCampbell (short story)
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Claude Akins

So, “Rio Bravo” was intended to be a conservative answer to the leftist ideals in the anti-blacklisting movie “High Noon”. Wayne and Hawks believed that “Noon” wasn’t a good western because it depicted a sheriff who ran around town pleading for help and in the end his wife, a Quaker, saves him.  I don’t believe most of that can be attributed to Wayne, but author Michael Munn, did attribute that entire sentiment to Hawks in his biography on Wayne “John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth”.

I’m not really sure which parts of those thoughts disturb me the most, the devaluing of women, the devaluing of another person because of their religious beliefs, or the bull-headed ideal of refusing to ask for help with a life or death problem. As far as the final point, Wayne’s sheriff in “Rio Bravo” has plenty of help in containing a prisoner who’s friends come to town to bust him out, whether he’s willing to ask for it or not. What does it say about these conservative ideals that alcohol is such a valued commodity among the heroes of this plot? True, Dean Martin’s character is desperately trying to break his dependency, but I’m not sure the two-step program he’s in here has any sort of stability in its support mechanisms.

As far as the movie goes, it’s still pretty good. It has a strange laid-back quality to it. It sort meanders along, but I liked that. It runs a little long. It has some good gunplay and a nice final shootout. It has good characters, and Angie Dickinson adorable as Wayne’s romantic interest. I could’ve done without the pop song from Ricky Nelson, but his duet with Martin is inevitable and a little more period appropriate.

Destry Rides Again (1939) ****
Director: George Marshall
Writers: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers, Max Brand (novel)
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Irene Hervey, Jack Carson, Samuel S. Hinds

I always thought that Madeline Kahn’s performance as Lili von Shtupp in Mel Brooks’ western send-up “Blazing Saddles” was an exaggeration of Marlene Dietrich. As it turns out, Kahn’s impersonation is straight. The fact that it was probably most directly derived from Dietrich’s performance in “Destry Rides Again” makes it very easy to see that Kahn was not exaggerating.

That’s not to say that “Destry” is the same level of slapstick that “Blazing Saddles” is. In fact, it’s a legitimate western, about a town that is being run by a crook who is swindling farmers out of their land so he can tax the cattle that run through it. A young lawman is brought in to straighten things out, but his methods are not what people are expecting. He doesn’t believe in guns. Therefore it’s fitting that the ultimate good guy, James Stewart, plays him.

Dietrich is the saloon madam who helps the crook in his schemes, but she can’t help but let Stewart get under her skin. I loved the different levels of entertainment this movie achieves, especially through its leads, who are opposite ends of the spectrum that allow themselves to wander into each others’ territories.

I’ve seen the movie categorized as a comedy. While it has funny parts, it isn’t strictly comedic. It holds moments of action, drama, and suspense. This is a fun movie. Stewart and Dietrich each make intriguing leads; and despite the fact that they don’t quite match, or maybe because of it, we get an interesting and original musical western.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961) *½
Director: Marlon Brando
Writers: Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, Charles Neider (novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones”)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Larry Duran, Sam Gilman

I hadn’t even realized that Marlon Brando had directed a western until I found this one kicking around with a bit of an underground reputation for being a fairly good one. I can’t agree that this is a good western, however. It is bloated and overly melodramatic, and it just plain drags.

It involves two bank robbers in Mexico who get into a bind. Brando plays the Kid who allows his partner (Malden) to go for some fresh horses. When Malden never returns, Brando spends five years in a Mexican prison. Once he escapes, Brando finds himself in with a new group of bandits who travel to the American Oceanside town of Monterey.

As it turns out, Malden is now the sheriff of Monterey. He’s married a woman with a daughter to distance himself from his former life as much as possible. When Brando shows up on his doorstep, Malden knows his past has caught up with him. What he doesn’t suspect is that Brando will fall in love with his stepdaughter.

It’s an intriguing enough story, but the script is so drawn out, the drama so overblown, that it becomes too much to take after a while. It was a progressive western at the time it was made with its more cerebral approach to the genre and a raw look to it that suggests a west that is more accurate to its reality. It was the type of western Sam Peckinpah might’ve made, filmed when that rule breaker was still directing fairly traditional westerns. Unfortunately, it’s too overemotional for its own good.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 29-May 5

Winchester ’73 (1950) ***½
Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Robert L. Richards, Borden Chase, Stuart N. Lake
Starring: James Stewart, Stephen McNally, Shelley Winters, John McIntire, Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, Rock Hudson, Will Greer, Jay C. Flippen

I finally got around to watching one of my father’s favorite westerns this week in his honor. I never really saw Jimmy Stewart as a western star until a few years ago when I saw him in the wonderful overlooked movie “The Far Country”. Soon after I watched perhaps the best western ever made “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and I was sold on Stewart as a perfect western hero.

“Whinchester ‘73” is often sited as one of his best westerns. It’s unique, in that it represents a few historical points in our nation’s western fascination without actually being about them. Wyatt Earp and Dodge City play a prominent role in the plot’s set up, and Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn throws some complications into the mechanisms of a simple plot about two men fighting for the possession of a rare Winchester ’73 riffle.

Stewart plays off of his nice guy image, as he always does in his best westerns, as a good man that skirts along the edge of his own dark musings. The relationship he holds with his nemesis contains dark secrets. The riffle makes a wonderful MacGuffin for the plot, which brings Stewart into contact with various western types and scenarios. I can understand why “Winchester ‘73” is considered such a pinnacle of the genre. Look for a young Rock Hudson as a blatantly white Native American chief.

Open Range (2003) ***½
Director: Kevin Costner
Writers: Craig Storper, Lauran Paine (novel)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi

“Open Range” contains one of the best shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. It begins with startling brutality in an action scene that goes against all conventions. After a gun for hire has been hyped against the lowly open range cattlemen for half the movie, the audience finally meets him for the big showdown. Before any bullets have been fired, the character played by Kevin Costner walks up to the hired gun and asks if he was the one who killed their friend. As soon as the bad guy ace answers ‘yes’, Costner shoots him point blank right in the head. All that build up and the flashy gunfighter is the first to drop. Genius.

The rest of the gunfight has an air of realism to it that few others do in westerns. No one is a great shot. There are misfires. Stray bullets hit horses and bystanders. But, Perhaps the most powerful element (which is probably not very realistic) is the volume of the gunshots. The whole gunfight is very much in the audience’s face, and the sound effects play to this fact. The pistols sound like large caliber riffles, and the riffles sound like cannons when they’re fired.

The gunfight is only one reason why I like this western so much. There are some great parallels between the heroes’ plight and those of the people at the mercy of big corporations, specifically big oil companies. That analogy in particular is quite ironic since Costner’s oil separation equipment helped to bail BP out of their gulf spill last summer. But, the gunfight is one of the most memorable aspects of this particular western.

Django (1966) **
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci, Franco Rossetti
Staring: Franco Nero, José Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak, Gino Pernice, Eduardo Fajardo

“Django” is a rather sad imitation of the Man With No Name spaghetti westerns made by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Franco Nero plays the titular Django, who might be better off if he had no name so the audience wouldn’t have to suffer through the sappy title song. Nero has the same gristly, sandy-haired, blue-eyed look of Eastwood, but Django talks too much to maintain his aloof posturing. The villains are caricatures of the Pancho Villa-type Mexican and steely-eyed White rancher, who for some reason is given a military rank although he has no uniform to indicate any form of service to anyone but himself.

The movie has all the broad strokes of the spaghetti western correct, but the details are a bit off and distract from the gritty reality of the desert that this subgenre is usually about. The coffin that Django drags behind him everywhere is a little too kitschy. The low budget is apparent in the economy of locations used. You can see large truck tire tracks in the mud going through the film’s central location. The crippling of Django’s hands in the film’s final act makes any plausible outcome impossible. And, the notion of love that works its way into Django’s unlikely relationship with a whore who doesn’t seem to do much whoring is ill suited to the material. “Django” might make for a good cult following, but could never overcome its shortcomings to hold any value to a larger audience.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) **
Director/Writer: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, John Pearce, Matt Clark, Wayne Sutherlin

What a strange account of the famous Younger-James gang Philip Kaufman’s “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” makes. It obvious Kaufman intended his film as a deconstruction of the great western myth of these famous outlaws. Unfortunately, he makes them into such strange individuals, I’m not entirely sure the film plays as he intended. Many of the elements contained within his retelling of the gang’s failed attempt to rob what was billed as the biggest bank in the Midwest in the little hovel of Northfield, Minnesota are no less than pure comedy. The comedy doesn’t mix well with the rather serious nature of the practices of these marauders.

Robert Duvall’s Jesse James is a psychopath, and while Cliff Robertson presents Cole Younger as the mild tempered mastermind of the group, he’s really not all that bright. The movie looks and feels gritty, but is delivered with an “aw shucks” attitude that doesn’t account for the innocent civilians hurt and killed in the gang’s actions. And, I don’t understand why they even bothered to present Pinkerton’s ineffective and rather monotonous involvement.

The Naked Spur (1953) ***
Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell

“The Naked Spur” find’s Jimmy Stewart once again teetering between right and wrong under the direction of Anthony Mann. Stewart is a bounty hunter who winds up taking on some unintended partners on a bounty that he hopes will give him enough money to buy his ranch back. The back-story is quite rich, and Mann and his writers do a good job throwing the audience right into the action from the opening scenes.  It’s a fairly claustrophobic story that involves only five characters, but the beautiful Colorado Rockies photography by William Mellor opens the mood up and gives us a good solid western.