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.

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