Monday, June 27, 2011

Cars 2 / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:

Mater: Larry the Cable Guy
Lightning McQueen: Owen Wilson
Finn McMissile: Michael Caine
Holly Shiftwell: Emily Mortimer
Sir Miles Axelrod: Eddie Izzard
Francesco Bernoulli: John Turturro
Professor Z: Thomas Kretschmann
Brent Mustangburger: Brent Musburger
Sally: Bonnie Hunt

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios present a film directed by John Lasseter. Co-directed by Brad Lewis. Written by Ben Queen and John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman. Running time: 112 min. Rated G.

Last week I complained in my weekly Penny Thoughts feature that sometimes critics could be sticks in the mud about certain types of movies. Pixar Animation Studio has been producing grand animations that deal with the full scope of humanity for so long that it seems critics have become conditioned to think that these are the only movies acceptable for the world’s best animation studio to produce. God forbid that the great minds at Pixar should stoop to make a film that is thrilling and entertaining without being about something much deeper. Forget that it’s still the best-looking CGI animation in the business and is crafted at a master level of filmmaking. How dare they?!

I’ve also read complaints that the star of the film is the bumbling rusty tow truck Mater (voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy) instead of Lightning McQueen. This particular complaint boggles my mind. It’s called “Cars 2”, not “Lightning McQueen 2”. Not to mention the fact that Mater is the most interesting character of the franchise. He deserves the spotlight.

But, enough about other people’s complaints. “Cars 2” is an exciting adventure set in a world populated by cars and imitating a spy thriller in the vein of James Bond. Instead of James Bond, however, our hero is not exactly the spy everyone thinks he is. “Cars 2” takes the fish out of water storyline of the first film and reverses it. Last time is was Lightning McQueen who had to slow down and learn the pleasures of living life off the fast track. This time it’s Mater who finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand. He’s mixed up in a sinister plot that will affect the whole world and it remains to be seen whether a simple rusty tow truck can play with the big guns.  ‘Big guns’ is intended quite literally.

Mater gets McQueen (Owen Wilson returning for a second turn as the flashy race car) into a new World Grand Prix sponsored by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard, “Igor”), who has discovered a fuel alternative to oil. Someone is trying to sabotage the race in which all the participants are using Axelrod’s new fuel. The Cars universe widens its horizons by placing the three segments of the race in three different international cities—Tokyo, a fictional Italian city, and London. McQueen’s major competition comes from a Formula One racing car, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, “Transformers”).

In Tokyo, Mater is mistaken for an American agent by British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, “The Dark Knight”) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, “The Pink Panther”). They think Mater’s rusty exterior and bumbling nature are part of his cover. Along with Mater, McMissile and Shiftwell set out to discover who is behind the plot to sabotage Axelrod’s race. Their investigations lead them to Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann, “King Kong”), but it appears he is only the engineer, not the puppet master pulling the strings.

The brilliance of the Cars universe is the way in which it imagines a world where cars can function as the dominant species based on the one we’re familiar with. Restrooms operate like automated gas stations. Pranks consist of sneaking up on giant service vehicles and scaring them into tipping over. Mountains form naturally into car monuments. The heroes of this world are the car athletes that make up the world’s greatest auto racing machines. A rusty dump truck doesn’t really have a chance of being something great. Or does he?

The filmmakers have a lot of fun with the notion of creating an espionage side to this universe. McMissile is modeled after the many cars of James Bond. He’s equipped with Bond-style gadgets to aid in his spy work, like image enhancing cameras in his headlights, oil slick jets out his tail pipes, bumper installed grappling hooks, machine guns in his fenders, an even speedboat manifolds for those quick aquatic escapes. Apparently the younger agents like Shiftwell have even more impressive upgrades.

As in the first film, there are also many celebrity cameos from the auto racing and sports commentating fields, like Brent Mustangburger, Darrell Cartrip, David Hobbscap, Jeff Gordette, and Lewis Hamilton. Much of the original cast from Radiator Springs also return this time, although in truncated roles.

Probably most impressive in this outing, though, is the movie’s production design, which has great fun in detailing the different locations visited by our heroes. Tokyo, with its brightly colored neon nightscape, seems a city destined to be explored by Pixar’s animated creativity and Disney’s top notch 3D processing. The town they create for the Italian race sequence—again something right out of a James Bond movie—is exquisitely beautiful with its seaside cliffs. And, London provides some familiar travelogue fare to convert to Cars specs. An elaborate death trap constructed by the villains in the clockworks of Big Ben seems a justified inevitability.

Co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis do manage to throw an environmental message and corporate warning into the plot of the film, but they are not heavy handed with it, so anything that might go over the kids’ heads doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the visual feast of the Cars world and the thrilling action adventure of a good espionage flick. The action will satisfy the children and the spy works will entertain the adults. Even though there isn’t as much meat on this movie’s bones as most Pixar fare, it still serves up the all ages entertainment that Pixar set the bar for and has been the master of for more than 15 years.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

‘Super 8’ Under Further Review

As a film critic you don’t always get to discuss a film the way you might with the friend you go to see it with.  You have to consider that your readers may not have seen the movie yet. You have to let your readers know what it’s about, so they can decide whether they want to see it or not. But, you can’t give too much away. In some instances, this isn’t really much of a problem. When it comes to a movie that has been kept under wraps the way “Super 8” was by its makers, it’s imperative that you don’t give too much away. 

When you do, it’s called a spoiler. As a reader, I don’t like spoilers. I see the word ‘spoiler’ and I’ll stop reading right then. I don’t like putting it into my writing either. But, with a movie like “Super 8”, when you don’t want to reveal any of the plot, it becomes very difficult to discuss what really makes a movie work or not work for you.

Much of my original review dealt with the fact that “Super 8” is one great big homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, whose movies fill my childhood summertime memories and are a great part responsible for my obsession with movies in general. Many critics wrote about the film’s similarities with the films of Spielberg. It was a good way to express how much we liked the movie without having to reveal any of the secrets the filmmakers kept during the film’s prerelease.

Needless to say, I’ve got more on my mind about this film than just my own personal love for Spielberg. The fact is this isn’t a Spielberg film, but a creation of another director all together. J.J. Abrams has created a great many popular projects that have defined him as just as important a filmmaker today as Spielberg was in my youth. A friend of mine read my review after seeing the movie himself and decided to open a discussion with me about it. This revisitation is the result.


The next sets of comments on the film are my friend’s. He brought up many problems that he had with the film that I had heard from other sources. It’s important to understand that I don’t feel his perception of the film is “wrong” in any way. His comments are as valid as my own, but they inspired me to dig a little deeper in understanding exactly why I liked the movie in the way that I did.

These were my problems...

- This man-eating alien is suddenly benevolent.
- In the end the creature basically uses the force and makes all the metal things attach to the water tower to create his ship so he can leave town. Why the hell didn't it do that from the get-go?
- There was no reason whatsoever that Joe should think that Alice would be alive after being taken by the creature so his quest from that point on was completely contrived for me. 
- And the fact that she was alive, hanging upside down as larder was a little convenient.
- They talk about how if you touch the alien you understand it and vice versa, but they missed a huge opportunity for Joe to be touched by it earlier. If it had it would've made his quest to find Alice more believable. 
- Kyle Chandler suddenly hugging Joe at the end and saying, "I gotcha" was not enough for me to believe that they've come to understand each other. Kyle never stepped up as a dad. Just as a cop.
- I didn't like Joe letting go of the locket at the end because it wasn't like he was hanging onto his mother for ten years and he finally needed to let go. In fact he was extremely well adjusted and it was just a comfort thing.
- Ron Eldard was a little ridiculous in his role as Alice's dad.

I usually don’t like getting into bullet point arguments about a movie, because it so often becomes about changing the other person’s opinion and that is pointless. If you don’t like something about a movie, you don’t like it. That’s subjective. You can’t change that. But, since you so orderly listed your complaints. I would like to address some of them.

First, I’d like to say something about what I think is the strength of J.J. Abrams as a sci-fi creator/writer. Although on many of his projects he’s just shaping them rather than actually writing the scripts, there are signatures to the Abrams style. One of them is a vagueness about what is actually happening. This is an element he uses to help draw his audiences in, and it allows him to stretch his television projects out over several seasons. But, I think he’s also quite conscious of this choice as a writer. Some may feel he’s being lazy by not defining certain elements in concrete terms, but I think the season finale of “Lost” is a good example of why assigning definitive definitions to his brand of sci-fi may not work as well as leaving things ambiguous. When it was finally revealed exactly what the island was, it was a let down to many people. This type of storytelling works better if it’s open to interpretation.

The musician Seal once stated that the reason he doesn’t include lyrics in his liner notes is so people can allow the songs to mean what they mean to them rather than forcing them into his own meaning. I think Abrams is a filmmaker who likes to remain slightly open to interpretation to his audiences. So, many of the details in “Super 8” are never concretely defined. He doesn’t explain many things, leaving them for the audience to figure out on their own. I like this approach.

As for your first point, I don’t believe the script ever claims that the alien is either a man-eater or benevolent. What it clearly states is that the only thing the alien wants is to go home. According to the science teacher’s documentation, the creature became more aggressive throughout its imprisonment by the Army because it wanted to go home. There is no evidence that the monster kills anyone but the military personnel, with whom it has an axe to grind. I don’t believe benevolence is ever suggested. This thing’s no E.T. He never even tries to phone home. He just wants out.

As far as I could tell, all the civilians it captures are hanging as larder in its lair, making it something beyond convenience that this was Alice’s fate. The alien is using these victims to serve a purpose, but I’ll get back to that. What I don’t understand about the alien’s “victims” is this, once Joe frees the sheriff and the other woman, they are afraid of a creature that doesn’t appear to have harmed them. The fact that they were freed by the boys and then snatched right up again by the creature seems like a cheap thrill.

You’re right that there’s no reason for Joe to believe that Alice is alive, except for the fact that he is the hero of the movie, and he can’t just give up on her. I didn’t have a problem with him believing she was alive so much as I did with everybody just going along with this conclusion without much question against it. There should be some resistance to his idea of going after her. I agree, allowing the alien touch Joe earlier would make this work better.

As for the creature’s ability to put his spacecraft back together again—well, that takes us back to the victims. It makes a psychic connection with every human it has physical contact with. That magical force it uses to pull all the metal to the water tower may have been fueled by that psychic energy it formed with its victims. That’s why it collects all the civilians as larder in its lair. It’s using them to strengthen its telekinetic powers. It couldn’t have formed the spaceship from the train because it didn’t have any victims to fuel its telekinesis. That’s why it had to escape from the military imprisonment first. The science teacher knew this from his psychic bond with it.

All the metal objects it draws to the water tower are not used for his spaceship. The spaceship is formed from the white cubes. It uses the water tower’s structure and the metal objects as a launching platform. It could’ve formed this earlier, but it needed to find all the cubes first. This is another reason it needs the civilian victims and needs to keep them alive. While the train did contain the cubes, the creature didn’t have all the resources it needed to form the spaceship or the launching platform at the train wreck. Plus, there could also be other unseen obstructions for his psychic powers built into his train containment cell and the cube containers that prevented him from manipulating them at that point.

Now, Kyle Chandler’s character—you’re not the first person I’ve heard complain about his failure as a father. I’ve heard his character compared to typical Spielbergian dads as a deadbeat. I disagree with this assessment. If he were a typical Spielberg dad, the mother would’ve been present and he would’ve been absent. Even Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” is absent as a dad. Chandler is not. He wants to be, but that doesn’t make him a failure as a father figure. He’s in mourning. He tries to send the boy away to camp because seeing the kid reminds him of his wife. He’s trying to do right by the kid.

There’s no real ‘stepping up’ that’s necessary. Compared to Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters”, I’ll take Chandler any day. Yes, he tells Joe to stay away from his friends. That’s because he’s a cop investigating a very mysterious and dangerous situation that Joe’s friends keep winding up right in the middle of. He doesn’t forbid Joe from his friends until after he catches them filming right in front of Helec, whom he knows is withholding major secrets and wielding obscene power. I’d tell Joe he was done making movies at that point too, so he wouldn’t end up disappearing like so many of the town’s other civilians.

As for stepping up at the end, he does set out to save his kid. There’re certainly a lot of avenues he could take as a cop who escapes his own unlawful imprisonment by the military, but he goes after his kid with a guy he doesn’t really like all that much. I’d say he does step up as a father. Do they understand each other at the end? Of course not. I didn’t understand my dad, and I doubt he understood me, until I was well into adulthood.  

I agree with you about Ron Eldard and the locket. Eldard’s final reaction shot to the alien spacecraft rising into the night sky is goofy and highlights a cheese factor that has not been an element until that moment in the movie. The locket moment felt like something that the filmmakers thought was supposed to be there, but they didn’t really know why.

I don’t feel this is some sort of great classic sci-fi. If I did, I would’ve awarded the same four stars I did to “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” There’s not enough meat to this material for it to be considered as great as those movies. I like how it addresses the Red scare and how its nuclear threat fueled sci-fi stories like this one from the 50s to the 80s, but it only references that fact and doesn’t really have anything to say about it. Also, Abrams doesn’t have quiet the same knack for raising the audience’s emotions through his camera movements and lighting that Spielberg does, but he comes close.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: June 17-23

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) **½
Director: Don Taylor
Writers: Paul Dehn, Pierre Boulle (characters)
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braedon, William Windon, John Randolph, Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban

The third in the series continues the milking, yet also continues to explore the social and moral implications of this possible future where apes evolve into the dominant species over man.  After the destruction of the Earth in the last episode of the series, once again we wonder just where they could go. The title gives it away.

“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” naturally follows the exploits of characters from the series that have escaped the destruction of our frightening future. In this case, three apes have escaped to the Earth past that the astronauts from the original film came from. Roddy McDowall returns as Cornelius after skipping the second movie, and Kim Hunter reprises her role for the third time as Zira. Surprisingly, Sal Mineo of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story” fame portrays the third ape.

Instead of giving us another story about racial intolerance by having the humans hate the apes, or providing another attack against religion; writer Paul Dehn gives us a story about the moral ambiguity involved in knowing the future of the planet. The apes are torn about telling the whole truth about man’s future for fear of reprisals against crimes they had nothing to do with. The government doctor in charge of the apes fears what their existence could mean about the future of, not just the human race, but the world as a whole. The way people’s view of God works into these notions is very interesting and could spark intriguing intellectual debate on how God works, if he should exist.

As a whole, this is the least exciting of the “Apes” movies. There is little action, and a great deal of philosophical debate on what is the right thing to do for both sides. I had to explain to my youngest that there isn’t always a bad guy. The sequences that don’t involve the moral ambiguities of the situation do borderline on camp, but for the most part this is still a viable debate on the nature of man and how we deal with the threat of our own hand in our inevitable demise.

Drive Angry (2011) *½
Director: Patrick Lussier
Writers: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse

Even after witnessing the cinematic crime that is “Drive Angry”, I still contend it could’ve been good. William Fichtner’s performance as the Accountant is my proof. If every aspect of the movie had been approached with the same sense of absurdity as Fichtner approached his role as the denizen of Hell sent to fetch an escapee, the movie would’ve worked and made a great cult B-movie.

As it is, “Drive Angry” takes itself too seriously. I’m sure it made for a nice campy read and it may have felt as they filmed it that it was the pinnacle of camp, but sometimes things don’t turn out as they seem while your making them. Cage’s performance isn’t over the top enough. I know that sounds crazy, but he needed to reach for his work in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”, instead he’s more subdued. That works for Fichtner, but not for Cage.

Director Patrick Lussier seems more concerned with pushing the limits of the 3D format of the movie (which does nothing for a 2D screening) than he is in pushing the limits of absurdity, which is the only way a script could work with this much over blown violence about a man who escapes Hell to take revenge on a cult preacher who thinks he can bring Hell to Earth.

Rashômon (1950) ****
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûnosuke Akutagawa (stories “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”)
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijirô Ueda

Akira Kurosawa’s classic multi-perspective movie “Rashomon” is subtle. It’s premise of telling a simple story of a murder from the perspectives of four different characters doesn’t seem to do the proper amount of lifting until the final moments of the film. While the telling of the tale from different perspectives is an interesting exercise, it isn’t until the exercise is finished and the remaining characters make their own judgments does the story’s true power surface. It is not a movie about who did what or why as the characters seem to think it is. It is about how judgment clouds the facts of a thing.

I was listening to a speech from “Apocalypse Now” recently that addresses the same subject. Colonel Kurtz says, “I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!”

He goes on to tell a story about how the Viet Cong had the fortitude to chop off the arms of the children the U.S. soldiers had inoculated for polio. He pontificates on what he could achieve with ten regiments of men with such fortitude. And then he says, “You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us.”

There’s a strange mixture of ideas here about moral fortitude, the purity of non-judgment, and true human horror that all seem to be present in Kurosawa’s film as well. Kurosawa’s version is a little more palatable, because it’s told by characters that haven’t given up. But, they don’t understand. It’s this lack of understanding that provides their horror. The movie helps us remove ours.

Summertime (1955) ***½
Director: David Lean
Writers: H.E. Bates, David Lean, Arthur Laurents (play “The Time of the Cuckoo”)
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi, Isa Miranda, Darren McGavin, Mari Aldon, Jane Rose, MacDonald Parke

How did I not know about this delightful David Lean romance until just this last winter? I suspect it’s because it’s a travelogue of Venice that stars only one major American actor, its lead Katherine Hepburn. The male lead is Italian matinee idol Rossano Brazzi, who just wasn’t famous enough in America to warrant this film’s inclusion in the classics that everyone knows about. It’s an entirely European film, without the all the Hollywood signatures of 1950s cinema. It’s a beautiful movie that regards Venice as intently (even more so) than it’s romantic leads.

Hepburn is as stunning as in any of her roles. Only Hepburn’s strong lines yet distinct femininity could even be noticed against the gorgeous Venice backdrop of this production. And who couldn’t appreciate the beauty of those red shoes she wears on her big date. I’m not a shoe guy understand; yet even I noticed the perfection design.

But, I digress on details outside the story. The story is simple, however, in order to highlight all those wonderful details. Hepburn is an American, somehow never pinned down with a ring by the ignorant men in America. She goes to Venice for an extended vacation and meets a handsome antique shop owner. The two visit the most romantic spots in the town and we admire the city’s beauty and theirs. It doesn’t try to be anything else, and Lean’s direction keeps the film confident and utterly enjoyable.

How Do You Know (2010) ***
Director/Writer: James L. Brooks
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Molly Price

You know, sometimes us critics can be sticks in the mud. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 31% of critics liked this movie. It bombed in the box office as well. All this is a shame. It isn’t great art, but as romantic comedies go, it’s fresh, it’s funny, and Paul Rudd deserves to be in more movies.

The big formula rule for rom coms is that the romantic leads must not realize their feelings for each other until it would be excruciatingly obvious to anyone with a pulse. This is still the case with “How Do You Know”, but this time the characters actually have pretty good reasons for not reaching out to each other with their true feelings. Rudd’s character’s life is falling to pieces due to a federal indictment for corporate fraud. It’s amazing he’s able to put a glass to his mouth without spilling its contents all over himself.

For Witherspoon, her excuse is that Rudd’s character is a complete goofy mess, and Rudd sells that for her. It’s obvious that Owen Wilson’s pro baseball player is all wrong for her, but Rudd hardly seems a better option for most of the movie’s running time.

I haven’t even mentioned Jack Nicholson yet. I remember reading some reviews that sounded as if they were sick of Nicholson’s “shtick.” These critics are mad. There’s nothing Nicholson should ever change about his shtick. He’s Jack. There’s no other reason to put him in a movie. And he’s as Jack as Jack can be here, adding the perfect amount of madness to a rom com filled with more charming madness than most.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) **
Director/Writer: Albert Brooks
Starring: Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, Amy Ryan, Fred Dalton Thompson

The comedy of Albert Brooks is always interesting. Of course, sometimes ‘interesting’ is the last thing you want your comedy to be. “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is Brooks’ usual personal take on the post-9/11 world. He plays a version of himself, as always, an actor/comedian named Albert Brooks hired by the U.S. government to go to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh.

He doesn’t find much comedy, nor does his own comedy seem to appeal to the Muslims. That doesn’t make them so different from us, since few Americans probably find much humor in Brooks’ dry and often depressed take on comedy these days. There was a time when Brooks was able to make me laugh in the way the world seemed to roll over him all the time. Perhaps I could laugh at that again, but here the world isn’t rolling over him, he’s kind of rolling over it in the way he’s unaware that his lack of effort to appeal to anyone but himself is exclusionary.

There are many humorous elements at work here, like the way Brooks’ presence in India rekindles the hatred between India and Pakistan, but he doesn’t highlight these comedic moments as much as he highlights his own serious search for something that he hasn’t a clue of how to look for. My favorite laughs came from the call center that occupied the office next to his in India. It’s all background dialogue, so you have to listen intently to catch all the places they say they are answering from. Best call answer in an Indian accent, “Hello, this is the White House. How may I help you?”

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) ***½
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writers: Paul Dehn, Pierre Boulle (characters)
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Ricardo Montalban

“Conquest” is by far the best entry in this series besides the first movie. Dealing with the mythology of just how the apes came to rise up over men on Earth, this movie is filled with sci-fi allegory about racism, slavery, corporate and government corruption, the genocidal practices of the Nazis, revolutionary reasoning, and the ineffectiveness of torture as a tool of submission. 

Taking place in the not too distant future of 1991—this will happen to all our not too distant future sci-fi material—a plague in 1983 wiped out the world wide population of cats and dogs. People replaced their pets with simians, but because of their advanced intelligence over our former pets, the apes were soon turned into slaves. Surviving that last film is the ape Caesar, the son of the two apes who arrived from Earth’s future. He’s the world’s only talking ape. The government fears his existence means the future foretold in the franchise’s first two installments may come to pass.  Of course, their fear of him is what drives that fate forward.

This is perhaps the most complex of the “Apes” films thematically. I’m still shocked by how frank it is in discussing its most controversial issues right on its surface. I very much admire how it is a black man who is sympathetic to the slavery conditions in which the humans place the apes. Yet, he is also sensitive to when the apes go too far in punishing their captors, reflecting the mirror image of man they will eventually become.

The Dilemma (2011) **½
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Allan Loeb
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah

I've heard a lot of criticism against the filmmakers of this movie for not choosing whether it is a comedy or a serious drama looking at the effects adultery has on those just removed from it.  While the movie doesn’t work in the end, it isn’t because it can’t make the comedy and the drama mix. Life is both, there’s no reason a movie can’t be both.

No, where “The Dilemma” goes wrong is with two scenes near its conclusion. The first is during the Anniversary party to which Vince Vaughn’s character is late. After a wildly inappropriate speech delivered for his best friend’s philandering wife’s benefit, his own significant other confronts Vaughn about his suspect behavior. For some reason, Hollywood screenwriters insist on not allowing their characters to defend themselves. She accuses him of slipping on his gambling addiction. While I can accept that he isn’t ready to tell her about his friend’s wife, I can’t understand why he wouldn’t at least deny her accusation. By not denying it, I suppose the screenwriter thinks he produces tension through her perceived vindication. But she doesn’t need to be vindicated to have that tension. He can tell her she’s wrong. She doesn’t have to believe him. That’s a false crisis. Very annoying.

The second major problem is with the final confession during the intervention. It’s just so dragged out, obviously to create some more comic situations. But, by this time, the audience is past the point of wanting the whole truth to come out. Why would this man allow this intervention to go on for something he hasn’t even done? He needs to just blurt everything out and let all the pieces land where they will. Instead we get this drawn out scene where everyone gets it all wrong once again before Vaughn finally straightens everyone out. This is just a waste of time.

That being said, I can’t help but admire what “The Dilemma” is trying to do as a piece of entertainment. It approaches a very serious subject with comedic elements, but not as a flat out comedy, which is Hollywood’s nature. Too often things that should be taken with a large grain of seriousness are merely ridiculed by filmmakers. Here’s an example of one being taken seriously, while acknowledging that there is humor and entertainment to be found in the subject of adultery.

Little Fockers (2010) **
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: John Hamburg, Larry Stuckey, Greg Glienna (characters), Mary Ruth Clarke (characters)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Owen Wilson, Teri Polo, Jessica Alba, Blythe Danner, Barbara Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel

Now, that was a whole bunch of comedic catharsis that nobody ordered.

I’m tempted to leave my review at that, but I had one other thing I wanted to add. Everybody did a really good job. It’s like that high school play that you really didn’t enjoy having to sit through, but you really liked seeing your friends on stage. I even think Jessica Alba did a good job. She got a bad rap last year. It’s too bad about the movie, though.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Green Lantern / **½ (PG-13)

Hal Jordan/Green Lantern: Ryan Reynolds
Carol Ferris: Blake Lively
Hector Hammond: Peter Sarsgaard
Sinestro: Mark Strong
Senator Hammond: Tim Robbins
Dr. Amanda Waller: Angela Bassett
Abin Sur: Temuera Morrison

And featuring the voices of:
Tomar-Re: Geoffrey Rush
Kilowog: Michael Clarke Duncan
Parallax: Clancy Brown

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg. Based on characters appearing in DC Comics. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action).

As Hollywood delves further into superhero mythology as explored by the major comic book companies Marvel and DC, we begin to get heroes that are more difficult for the average moviegoer to discern. We pass beyond the territory of the goodness of Superman or the dark vigilantism of Batman. With the latest comic book adaptation from DC, we are introduced to “Green Lantern”. Green Lantern, the hero, is simple enough, but his mythology is a little more involved at the introductory level than Batman’s or Superman’s.

As the movie opens, we find ourselves in space where an alien entity known as Parallax has escaped imprisonment by the alien Abin Sur. Parallax feeds off the energy of fear. Abin Sur is part of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police organization that utilizes the energy of will to power the rings that endow them with superpowers. Uh huh.

On Earth, we meet a test pilot named Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds, “Definitely, Maybe”). Like all movie hero pilots, Jordan is cocky, disobeys orders, defies authority, destroys hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to make his own personal point, but is the best damn pilot in the business. Still, Jordan’s life seems driven by fear, possibly because as a young child he witnessed the death of his father in a jet accident. His father claimed to be fearless. Do you think there’s going to be some lesson about the nature of fear to be learned from Jordan’s story?

After a battle with the escaped Parallax, Abin Sur crash lands on Earth where his ring has sought out a new wearer worthy to be part of the fearless ranks of the Green Lantern Corps. There’s that word again. Jordan is the man chosen by the ring. Although he does experience fear, the ring saw something in Jordan. What could it be?

I’ve mocked some of the set up here, but the direction by Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) does an unusually good job of navigating the spacescape and all the alien characters. The origin story of Jordan is made from slightly worn material, however. It lacks the humanity it needs to fully engage the audience. Yes, Jordan is flawed, yet there’s a sexy woman, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively, “The Town”), who cares for him anyway. The screenplay tries to place some humor into Jordan’s character for texture, but the comedy is fairly fleeting. That’s a shame because Ryan Reynolds is a rare leading man gifted in comedy.

The plot thickens on Earth when Dr. Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett, “Jumping the Broom”) recruits college professor, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard, “Knight and Day”), to examine the recovered body of Abin Sur. Hammond is the son of a U.S. Senator (Tim Robbins, “War of the Worlds”), who pulled strings to get his son the job, but still doesn’t respect him. A lingering aspect of Parallax infects Hector, deforming him and imbuing him with telekinetic powers. This storyline is typical superhero fare and is not fully developed because of the time spent developing the presence of the GL Corps.

While the GL Corps doesn’t ultimately have much of a role to play in this particular storyline, they are the most interesting aspect of the movie. Sinestro appears to be the leader of the Corps. Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) handles the character with an even temperament. He’s authoritative but fair. This is my favorite role in which I’ve seen Strong, who usually specializes in teeth gnashing. From my knowledge of the Green Lantern comics and one hint in the movie, I suspect he will play a larger role in the sequel.

“Green Lantern” will easily satisfy fanboys of the comic book, especially because the filmmaker’s expert handling of the Green Lantern Corps themselves. However, there seems to be some spark lacking from the movie as a whole. Perhaps if the filmmakers had more faith in Jordan as a hero, they could’ve provided us with a more focused origin story that left the GL Corps out of the mix for the time being. Although the Corps scenes were the most interesting of the movie, a stronger introduction to Jordan and his Earthbound supporting cast would’ve made Green Lantern a little more compelling as his own character. I couldn’t recommend this first installment in the franchise to many beyond the GL fanbase, but I have better hopes for the sequel.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: June 10-16

The Green Hornet (2011) **½
Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, George W. Trendle (radio series)
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, David Harbour, Edwards James Olmos, Tom Wilkinson

I enjoyed “The Green Hornet” much more than I expected to considering the critical lashings it received upon its theatrical release in January. Director Michel Gondry, the mind behind such cinematic oddities as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep” brings some fresh ideas to the delivery of superhero action. His unique visual style capitalizes on much of the comedy inherent in the script by star Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. There are sequences that manipulate the image through time lapse or overlapping and even multiple split screens that set this actioner apart from your average superhero flick.

Perhaps the script is the most unique aspect of the film, however, in the way it focuses on the relationship between the hero Britt Reid and his sidekick Kato. Theirs is a bond born from the stoner culture that Rogen built his fame on. They have many conversations in which they discuss their own shortcomings. Kato is an undiscovered genius, the opposite of Rogen’s Green Hornet. Reid is a perennial slacker, which begs the question, shouldn’t Kato be the superhero rather than the sidekick? Rogen and Evans are quite aware of this quandary and capitalize on it.

What doesn’t work is the villain played by Christoph Waltz. His crimelord is just as goofy and unconventional a villain as Rogen’s Green Hornet is a hero. Waltz won an Oscar playing the unconventional Nazi villain in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”. Because of the serious nature of what the Nazi’s did, unconventional worked in that story. Here, it would be more effective to have a very conventional villain working against Rogen’s and Chou’s unconventional heroes. Waltz does goofy well, but I think more comedy could’ve been culled from a very serious villain’s confusion about his nemesis’s methods.

Also the action gets too out of hand. There is so much destruction met on Los Angeles in the final showdown, most of it against Reid’s own property The Sentinel newspaper, that it all becomes too preposterous. Gondry seems to have a fettish for crushing individuals with very large objects falling from the sky. You could probably make a good drinking game out of counting all the crushed victims in this movie.

Western of the Week

Hud (1963) ****
Director: Martin Ritt
Writers: Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr., Larry McMurtry (novel “Horseman, Pass By”)
Starring: Paul Newman, Brandon De Wilde, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal

I will be looking at modern day westerns as part of this weekly series as well. Of course, “Hud” was modern day back in 1963. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s first novel “Horseman, Pass By”, this film makes it easy to see why McMurtry has had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. He writes material that is cinematic to its core. His stories involve breathtaking landscapes, deep characters and great catharsis.

“Hud” is the name of this story’s protagonist. The son of a Texas cattleman, Hud has a reputation as a troublemaker, an adulterer, and frankly a pretty good ranch hand. His nephew, Lonnie, looks up to him, but is a purer soul who wonders why Hud and his grandfather can’t get along. Hud thinks it’s because his father holds him responsible for the death of his brother. But, the elder’s problems with Hud go deeper than that, if that weren’t enough.

Martin Ritt’s movie is a stunning example of the beauty of black and white photography. The flat plains of Texas look both dry and majestic in their simple beauty. The black and white also acts as a reminder of the world that is being left behind from the old ranchers like Hud’s father. The younger generation will bring color and complexity to the landscape. In Hud’s case, that color may just mean that landscape is a little lonelier than it used to be, a little less inviting.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) ***
Director: Ted Post
Writers: Paul Dehn, Mort Abrahams, Pierre Boulle (characters)
Starring: James Franciscus, Linda Harrison, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, David Watson, James Gregory, Charlton Heston

The second in the “Planet of the Apes” series firmly establishes that from here on out the producers only goal is to milk the franchise for all it’s worth, just from the fact that the first film neither required nor even hinted at the notion that a sequel might be required. Yet, somehow the writers were able to come up with a screenplay that actually did add to some of the thematic elements of the first film.

To be sure, they hardly had another feature length film’s worth of further insight into the racism, soci-politics, and theological criticism the first film got started on. In fact they spend the first half of the movie having their new hero captured and recaptured by the apes for the sole purpose of creating some action sequences before the movie dips heavily into its science fiction philosophy lesson about the inevitability that man will bring about his own demise.

I don’t know what happened to the writers of this series, but the church cut them. The church cut them bad. They don’t have anything good to say about organized religion. They criticize the church through their depiction of the Apes’ bogus religion here just as they did in the first movie. Then they show us an advanced race of men, who have telepathic powers who cling to an even more perverted form of deity worship. They worship the very thing that brought about the demise of man and the rise of the apes, and the very thing that will destroy everything in the end. I am glad I didn’t go to their Catholic school.

Bleak Moments (1972) **½
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Anne Raitt, Sarah Stephenson, Eric Allan, Joolia Cappleman, Mike Bradwell, Liz Smith

Would an American movie producer even consider putting together a movie with the title “Bleak Moments”? Thank you, Britain for sharing your despair.

“Bleak Moments” was the first film of Mike Leigh, auteur of the British working class. It focuses on the rampant Puritanism amongst the working class in the early seventies. These Brits aren’t shagadelic, although one would like to be. I jest, but the film contains some of the strangest repression I’ve seen expressed on film.

The movie isn’t all about repressed sexuality, although a date between the lead and a fellow who walks her to work every day does take up a good portion of its running time. Sylvia is a secretary for an accountant. She cares for her sister, who has some form of mental handicap. This burden keeps Sylvia from experiencing a normal life of going out and meeting men, having friends. She has one friend, a fellow employee who has the exuberance of the heroine of the recent Leigh film “Happy-Go-Lucky”. Although, even she’s not as blessed as the main character from that incredible film.

Sylvia also rents her garage out to a writer who plays guitar. He’s almost as nervy as her sister, but he’s capable of functioning on his own. She’s drawn to him, perhaps because of their shared isolation.

Despite what I’ve said about the movie, I don’t think “Bleak Moments” is an entirely accurate title. Surely, Sylvia’s lifestyle seems bleak, but what drives it are moments of hope. She doesn’t always sit up in her room drinking her sherry, although she may after the date she has here.

I can’t get fully behind “Bleak Moments”. It is too slowly paced. The production values are awfully low, although a restored edition of it might help to make it more playable. Something tells me a restoration it about as unlikely as Sylvia’s happiness, however.

Arrested Development, Season 1 (2003-04) ****
Creator: Mitchell Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Judy Greer

With a feature film planned for 2012, I figured it was time for me to finally catch up with “Arrested Development”. The short-lived but critically lauded series ran on FOX Television Network from 2003 to 2006. It garnered a cult following while it aired, but not enough to keep it afloat. Like so many of today’s great television programming, it has found new life on DVD and through instant streaming. Executive producer and narrator Ron Howard joked in the show’s final episode that it wouldn’t work as a series but might make a good movie. Apparently, it will, but at last report the script was still being written and the 2012 release is hardly set in stone.

Along with playing its role in defining the new way we absorb television, “Arrested Development” also boasted an incredible cast of both past and future talents. Veteran film and television character actor Jeffrey Tambor plays the family patriarch whose dishonesty causes much of the family’s strife, while Jessica Walter, the woman who once terrorized Clint Eastwood in his directorial debut “Play Misty For Me”, plays his wife. The series resurrected the career of former child television star Jason Bateman, the one sane member of the family; and marked a return to FOX for Portia de Rossi (“Ally McBeal”) as his twin sister. The show marked first time major network roles for Will Arnett (“Running Wilde”), Tony Hale (“Chuck”), and David Cross (“Mr. Show”); and introduced audiences to future film talents Alia Shawkat (“Whip It”) and Michael Cera (“Superbad”).

Following the ridiculous exploits of the rich Bluth family, who finds their fortune taken away when Tambor is arrested for corporate crimes, the show’s irreverence is matched only by its wicked attention to the absurd details of the eccentric lives of this more than dysfunctional family. Throughout most of the first season the only family member who even has a job is the Bateman character, who takes over as president of the family’s land development firm. His job is impossible, because everything in the company is caught up in the legal mess created by his father.

The show may have been a few years ahead of its time as it seems custom made for the financial fallout of this country’s Wall Street bailout that occurred two years after it’s cancelation. Almost every member of the Bluth family is so caught up in their own personal materialism that everyone is a target to further someone else’s benefit.

Favorite moment of the first season: The blind dog who leaps off the vet’s table into the trashcan.

Another Year (2010) ***
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, David Bradley, Martin Savage, Karina Fernandez

I don’t know whether to be warmed by Mike Leigh’s latest film “Another Year” or to be depressed by it. On the one hand, it centers on a couple that seems to have the tricks to life figured out. They’re happy, they know how to deal with problems, and they’re pretty good at deflecting other people’s problems from themselves. They have a pretty squared away adult child, who finds a good companion through the course of the film. They’re the people we should all aspire to be.

On the other hand, it seems everyone else in their life is messed up beyond all help. This goes extra for their friend Mary, played with scatterbrained zeal to utter self-destruction by Lesley Manville. Mary is a manic-depressive alcoholic who just can’t seem to focus her energies in the right direction. You feel for her, but were she in your life, you wouldn’t want her in it much.

I was struck while watching this movie wondering just what inspires a filmmaker like Mike Leigh when conceiving his projects. His films are so personal. Are these characters based on people he knows? Leigh is notorious for the way he puts a movie together. He doesn’t work with a script but rather has an outline of what’s supposed to happen to his characters. Then he spends months in improvisational rehearsals with his cast. When he feels they’ve worked the character’s stories out, they film it. That’s probably an oversimplification of his creative process, but it still begs the question, where are his ideas coming from?

Leigh’s films once felt very raw, but lately they have a refined quality to them that suggests this is all so second nature to Leigh and his acting troupe (he uses the same actors in many projects) that they can really enjoy the details at this point. “Another Year” isn’t his best movie by any measure, but it has all of what makes him a great auteur of film.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8 / ***½ (PG-13)

Joe Lamb: Joel Courtney
Alice Dainard: Elle Fanning
Charles: Riley Griffiths
Cary: Ryan Lee
Martin: Gabriel Basso
Preston: Zach Mills
Jackson Lamb: Kyle Chandler
Louis Dainard: Ron Eldard
Nelec: Noah Emmerich

Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use).

I was watching an old episode of Siskel & Ebert the other day. It was a special episode where they made their favorite summer movie recommendations. Gene Siskel made a comment near the end of the program about how most great summer movies took place in the late fifties or early sixties, before central air conditioning was available in most houses, because you could feel the heat of the summer in those eras. Well, that’s all well and good for his generation, but summer for my generation always had central air. What defines a great summer movie for me has to do with a different kind of atmosphere. It’s darker than the movies Siskel & Ebert ran down in that early 90s episode of their show. It involves being a kid and doing things your parents weren’t aware of. It often involved movies, because that’s when we saw most of the movies we’d see throughout the year. More often than not they were movies directed by Steven Spielberg.

J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek") remembers summer in the same way. He’s made a wonderful homage to early Spielberg with his latest summer flick “Super 8”. It’s such good homage, he even got Spielberg to produce it. It has moments that will remind you of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”. It even has a leading cast of kids like “The Goonies”. It takes place in a typical Spielbergian suburban setting. It helps that it takes place during the summer of 1979, right smack dab in the middle of Spielberg’s amazing run of summer blockbusters. We’ll just forget about “1941”.

Like many of Spielberg’s movies that helped to define the summers of my youth, “Super 8” follows a group of kids going into their summer vacation. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is an ambitious child filmmaker, much like Spielberg was himself. He’s recruited all of his friends to help him make a zombie movie over the summer to enter into a filmmaking contest. Joe (Joel Courteny)—Charles’s best friend and make up artist—is coming off a tumultuous year, having recently lost his mother in a steel factory accident. Joe’s father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), is a deputy Sheriff. Jack wants to send Joe to a summer camp to take both their minds off their loss.

Charles recruits a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning, “Somewhere”), to play a character in his film. He thinks she will add weight to the script and she has access to a car. Joe is enamored with Alice, but she does not reciprocate at first. When they are filming a scene at a train station one evening, Charles decides to film while the train is passing by to give the movie more authenticity. Joe notices a truck pulling onto the train tracks in front of the train. The two collide and set into motion events that are too spectacular and wondrous to happen in real life, but contain the same fear and paranoia that exist in our world and provide for great summer entertainment.

The train wreck is beyond spectacular. It makes the train crash in “The Fugitive” look like the derailings you caused on your model train tracks in the basement. In fact, it may have been too much of a crash. I had a little trouble believing any of these kids could’ve survived the thing. But, this loud and calamitous crash only cushion’s the blow of the events that are about to unfold. Abrams is good at only hinting at what’s in store for this town. Like Spielberg’s “Jaws”, we don’t get to see any of what escapes from the wreckage until well into the movie, but we do get what seems to be a crazy old man with oblique warnings of what has befallen this town.

Abrams embraces Spielberg’s fascination with the military and government conspiracy as the abrasive Helec (Noah Emmerich, “Pride and Glory”) commands the troops that descend upon the small Ohio town to clean up the wreckage. Helec is very interested to know what the kids might’ve filmed at the crash and actively pursues their identities. Concerned about danger to his citizens, Jack tries to get some answers from Helec, but is stonewalled. This cleverly brings Jack and Joe onto the same trajectory at the center of the strange events that begin to occur all over town.

I wouldn’t begin to suggest what is really going on in this movie, as discovering that is much of its appeal. It’s so rare in today’s hard sell movie market to go into a movie and not know all the major plot points ahead of time. Abrams managed this with a mysterious marketing campaign. The fact that there are no major stars in the picture is also a throwback to 70s filmmaking. Stars have always held box office power, but there was a time when a film could pull off ticket sales without them. They were called sleepers. All of the kids, except for Elle Fanning, are first time movie stars. Fanning has yet to prove herself in summer blockbuster fare. Even the adult actors are marginal stars, Chandler holds the most weight coming off the critically lauded, yet low rated television show “Friday Night Lights”.

The greatest success of this movie isn’t it’s mystery or the special effects, or even the science fiction allegory of how it connects the beginning of the atomic age with the fears of the 80s nuclear age. I loved the woman in the town meeting who was convinced that this was a sign that the Russians were invading. No, Abrams’ greatest achievement here is how he so accurately resurrects what it was like to see a movie in the late seventies and early eighties, simply by making one as if it was that time period. Perhaps this element is not as important to some viewers as it is to me, but it reminds us of how much our technology has changed the way movies are made today. And, it shows that we can use today’s technology to make movies the way we used to, when it all seemed so much more magical.