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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah... you missed the point entirely on Lonesome Dove. No need to read anything else you wrote here...