Saturday, June 11, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: June 3-9

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) **
Director: Michael Apted
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni, C.S. Lewis (novel)
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg, Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton

I understand that Disney really pulled the rug out from under this series when they dumped it from their schedule. Although, it was good of 20th Century Fox to pick it up under their independent banner Fox 2000 Pictures, this movie feels like an inferior to its predecessors. The two previous films had grand epic atmospheres to them. This one plays more like a cheap imitation that just didn’t have it in the budget to open its story up on an epic scale.

It feels claustrophobic, as if they just couldn’t bring the cast off that damn boat. They’re on the boat. They come to an island. They get off the boat. They get back on the boat. They come to another island. And so, the pattern repeats itself. There aren’t as many characters, especially of the CGI nature. They rush into the action of the story without much establishment of what’s been going on since last time, or why the two older children are no longer major players. And, once we’re in Narnia, it doesn’t hold the same magic as it did on the first two outings. Even Ben Barnes doesn’t seem quite so regal as King as he did as Prince in “Prince Caspian”.

Will Poulter is attention grabbing as the only new major character, cousin Eustace Scrubb. Without him the movie would seem a heavy slough through the motions of this once fascinating Christian allegory franchise. And, it seems to me the allegory is a little too heavy handed this time around. I was half expecting Liam Neeson’s “Taken” character to quietly intimidate out of the lion’s mouth at the end “I’m God. God! I push one button and 38 agents are here before you have time to scratch your worthless balls.”

Somewhere (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning

It’s a crime that “Somewhere” hasn’t received the recognition as Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”. Even her follow up, “Marie Antoinette”, garnered more buzz than “Somewhere” did. It’s a shame because this is just as good a movie as either of those. Not only is it a triumph for Coppola, but also it is probably the best performance Stephen Dorff has or will ever give in his career.

I suppose the lack of interest can somewhat be explained by the nature of the story, which involves a movie star (Dorff), who doesn’t really do much with his life. He has a daughter from a failed marriage. She brings a slight change to his life when her mother asks him to take her for an extended period. I say slight change, because nothing in this movie is done with typical Hollywood grand epiphany. It stays much truer to life in its notion that any change in a person is miniscule, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.

I’ve heard some complaints that instead of “Somewhere” it should be titled “Nowhere”, because that’s where it goes. This perception couldn’t be more wrong. It is one of the most detailed character studies I’ve seen. Unlike most portrayals of actors in movies, this story isn’t about this one’s career. It’s about the rest of his life, which doesn’t amount to much until he gets to know his daughter a little better. We learn that he’s a leading man, who has had success, but that’s about all of his acting career that we get. He doesn’t live like the movie stars we see in movies. He lives rather modestly, except for the occasional private jet or helicopter ride. But he’s not interested in his money. He’s not interested in anything until his daughter finally peaks his interest. Dorff’s change is subtle and a bit reluctant, but it’s deep inside. It speaks volumes of what it is to be a father.

I’ve made the movie sound unentertaining. Some viewers who are too trained in Hollywood expectation might think so. But, there’s more of the vitality of life in this movie than in 99 percent of every other movie out there.

Morning Glory (2010) **½
Director: Roger Mitchell
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, John Pankow, Jeff Goldblum

One criterion I use for determining the success of a movie seems pretty obvious from a writer’s point of view. At least for a writer who doesn’t think he’s some incredible screenwriter or anything. That criterion is that if I can write better lines than the ones coming out of the character’s mouths, then I can’t recommend it.

I liked “Morning Glory”. It isn’t anything special, but it was charming. I liked Rachel McAdams as the lead. I liked Patrick Wilson as her romantic interest. I loved Jeff Goldblum as her boss, and Diane Keaton makes for a believable morning talk show personality. Harrison Ford is terribly miscast here, however. He unfortunately makes that miscast even more bungled by channeling Clint Eastwood for the role of a former nightly news anchor who is forced back into the news via the journalistic basement of morning news programming. He’s not believable as any sort of a television personality, let alone one who people would want to invite into their homes on a solo basis, as they do for a news anchor. His delivery of the news is beyond drab.

But, the deciding factor in my thumbs down review of this film has to do with all the missed moments by the screenplay. There were moments where I was sure a good line was going to be punctuated by an even better one, when instead the character wouldn’t react to the great line and just prattled on in the direction they’d already started, as if nothing clever had been said.

The two biggest offenses are as follows. At one point, McAdams says to Wilson that she doesn’t usually even realize a man is interested in her until he gets naked. Why doesn’t Wilson start undressing at that moment? It’s the only intelligent response to such information for a man who is interested in her.

In another scene, Ford’s character utters the line “You know what I've noticed, people only say ‘lighten up’ when they're gonna stick their fist up your ass.” My immediate response to that is, “Well, then bend over.” Why this isn’t what McAdams says to this arrogant man, I can’t imagine. She’s trying to play the hard ass against his tantrums. It’s a tough response that his character would respect, and she’s already shown the gumption to be so brash. What a lost opportunity for the screenplay.

Despite all this, this movie did make me smile and laugh. As a light-hearted workplace semi-romance, you could do much worse. It delivers what it promises. I just wish it delivered more.

Planet of the Apes (1968) ****
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers: Michael Wilson, Rod Sterling, Pierre Boulle (novel)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner

This is the movie series responsible for Penny Thoughts. About two years ago I had obtained a copy of the complete “Planet of the Apes” movie series for a dirt-cheap price of 19 bucks. At the time, I had been writing little blurbs for movies I watched on the Facebook app Living Social. I had a great deal of fun watching this series in particular that I wrote slightly more in depth than I had been for my mini-reviews. When someone commented on how many movies I must watch from his observations of my Living Social activities—he thought I had watched all five “Ape” movies in one day—it occurred to me that I was already writing about movies there. Why not turn those little blurbs into a weekly feature? Thus, Penny Thoughts was born.

“Planet of the Apes” is one of those classic series that just doesn’t seem willing to die. The first film is an unwavering sci-fi classic. Its follow-ups not so much. It’s almost hard to write about the first film, however, since it’s images and ideas are so ingrained in the cinematic consciousness of those who aren’t even cinephiles. There are the lines, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” “It’s a mad house, a mad house!” and of course, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” There is the iconic closing image of the destroyed Statue of Liberty. There is the social commentary about racial prejudices between the humans and apes and even within the ape society itself. There is the criticism against the use of religion to perpetuate lies and gain power over the uninformed masses. This movie is a perfect model for the science fiction genre in the way it uses a fantasy action-based story to comment on our present day society and the human condition as a whole.

Western of the Week

The Deadly Companions (1961) **
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Albert Sydney Fleischman (also novel)
Starring: Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara, Steve Cochran, Chill Wills

“The Deadly Companions” was legendary western director Sam Peckinpah’s first feature film. It shows. It’s obviously a first film and a Peckinpah. There’s rawness to the presentation that suggests something of the independent film movement that wouldn’t begin until thirty years later. That’s Peckinpah’s touch.

It’s surprising that this movie came out of the studio system. It doesn’t feel like a studio film. It plays with some very dark notions of the west, something very different than the popular John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart westerns that were just at this point beginning to wane in their “pure” depiction of the western frontier. Sexuality and even rape are teetering into Peckinpah’s west, in this tale of a woman on a quest through dangerous Apache territory to bury her child next her husband.

Maureen O’Hara plays the woman, and her involvement is probably the only reason the film was funded. The man who accidently killed her child in a shootout accompanies her. He has abandoned his own quest of revenge for this one of redemption, but his targets tag along for the ride.

There is much to admire about this film with its gritty and grim vision of western life. There are also many drawbacks to a film by a director who hadn’t quite found his voice. Peckinpah seems to be fighting against convention in nearly every frame of the film, which results in some bad pacing choices, poor quality in the acting, and a score that is best left forgotten. His next film “Ride the High Country” does a better job of incorporating the standards of the western into his own unique take on it. It is one of his often-overlooked gems.

Still of the Night (1982) **½
Director: Robert Benton
Writers: Robert Benton, David Newman
Starring: Roy Scheider, Meryl Streep, Jessica Tandy, Joe Grifasi, Sara Botsford, Josef Sommer

“Still of the Night” is an example of a crime genre that was particularly popular in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. The story involves a psychiatrist who gets tangled in a murder investigation. The prime suspect is the mistress of one of his patients. As he looks into the case himself, he finds himself falling for the mistress. Is she the killer? Will he be her next victim? Or has she been set up by someone that will try to kill them both?

Looking at the movie now, it seems a little predictable; but at the time it was probably a fairly involving entry in this specialized genre. There are good performances by Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep as the leads. The movie does not stray its focus from them, and the rest of the cast—including the great Jessica Tandy—hold little significance to the action of the movie.

This was writer/director Robert Benton’s follow up to his award-winning “Kramer vs. Kramer”, and allowed him to work with Streep on a much more substantial role than the one she had in his previous film. It’s nice to see Streep as an ingénue. She’s had such a varied career in terms of roles; it’s easy to forget that once she was a pretty young thing.

I fear “Still of the Night” doesn’t stand up to the sophistication of today’s thriller standards; but if you’re a fan of either of the leads or Benton, it may be worth your time. It’s currently streaming on Netflix instant.  

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