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.

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