Monday, July 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 8-14

Frankenstein Unbound (1990) ½*
Director: Roger Corman
Writers: Roger Corman, F.X. Feeney, Brian Aldiss (novel)
Starring: John Hurt, Raul Julia, Nick Brimble, Bridget Fonda, Catherine Rabett

This movie was so bad that I put it so far out of my mind I forgot to review it last week. I watched it between “Rubber” and “The Deathly Hallows”, but I forgot to even mention it in last week’s Penny Thoughts. At the point when John Hurt’s scientist from the future is shuttling Mary Shelley around the Transylvanian countryside in his convertible Knight Rider wannabe talking car from the future, I must’ve deleted it from my immediate memory.

Retelling Shelley’s Modern Prometheus tale through the eyes of a scientist that has traveled back through time because of his own monstrous creation, this strange take on the classic “Frankenstein” adds little to the tale beyond having some distractingly out of place character in the middle of all the events. Despite their best efforts, John Hurt, as the future scientist, and Raul Julia, as Dr. Frankenstein, can do little to save this shoddy material from itself.

While watching this debacle, I was struck by the thought of what Hurt was doing only a decade before this movie in the great David Lynch film “The Elephant Man”, a story similar to “Frankenstein”. How far actors can fall in their careers to go from one of the greatest real life portrayals as that film’s titular character to finding themselves as a surrogate Dr. Frankenstein in a movie that contains an actual representation of the misguided literary figure. I guess Brian Aldiss thought that was a good idea for his book. Maybe it was, but it certainly wasn’t for this movie.

Arrested Development, Season 3 (2005-06) ****
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, Jeff Garlin, Charlize Theron, Dave Thomas, Scott Baio, John Michael Higgins, Bob Einstein

The third season of the incredibly funny and groundbreaking sitcom “Arrested Development” brings it’s bittersweet end. It’s always sad to finish watching a cherished television show, even one as off the wall absurd as this one. The third season is the briefest, the strangest, and the most innovative of the series as the writers shamelessly refer to the show’s imminent cancelation throughout the season, with a big push during the last few episodes to encourage people to tell their friends to watch. The benefit episode where the family holds a benefit to save their company, yet every line has a double meaning referring to the shows own ratings, should go down in history as one of the best classic sitcom episodes in history. This isn’t just situational comedy, but satire of the highest level.

Favorite part of the third season: Bob Loblaw, Attorney at Law. Say his name out loud. It brings me joy every time I say it.

I Love You Phillip Morris (2010) ***
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Steve McVicker (book “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks”)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Brennan Brown

This is certainly the most interesting movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s good too. It’s lighthearted even though it’s a true story about a repeat convict and con man. It’s a gay love story without all the heartbreak of “Brokeback Mountain”. But the makers are really insistent that it is a true story. That’s the fascinating part.

Jim Carrey is Steven Russell. I’m guessing that’s an alter ego for the book’s author Steven McVicker. Steven is a gay man who lives the straight life as a police officer, father, churchgoer, and happily married man until one day he has a car accident and vows to live the life he wants to live. Not only does that life involve being the gay man he always knew he was, but it also involves such an extravagant lifestyle that he must turn to crime to pay for it. Once his confidence schemes get the best of him, he winds up in jail and meets the “love of his life”, Phillip Morris, portrayed with typical understated perfection by Ewan McGregor.

The details of Steven’s life from that point on make the build up seem average. He gets himself and Phillips out of their sentences early by studying the law, and then cons himself into a job as a CFO of a big Texas business, where he proceeds to bilk the company for millions. He’s eventually caught and spends every incarcerated minute developing escape plans. Some of them work, but the law always catches up to him. Then he creates his most amazing escape yet. I won’t spoil what it is, but I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about this guy earlier, if he really did this that is.

The film’s lighthearted tone makes everything fun, although I doubt very much that it was. There are some weaknesses. Sometimes the Carrey-isms get him a little carried away from the reality of what’s going on. Nor do I feel we ever learn enough about the two people in his life who love him so much—his ex-wife, played by Leslie Mann, and Phillip. However, the movie is entertaining and fascinating enough that those missing elements don’t really matter that much.

Made in Dagenham (2010) ***
Director: Nigel Cole
Writer: William Ivory
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Geraldine James, Jaime Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Mays, Rosamund Pike, Rupert Graves, Miranda Richardson, Richard Schiff

“Made in Dagenham” makes the second fascinating true story that I’ve seen this week that I’m amazed not to have known anything about before now. This British charmer tells the story of the 1968 female workforce strike at the Ford manufacturing plant in Dagenham, England that was responsible for worldwide pay reform for female workers.

We meet Rita O’Grady, a happy and unassuming woman played by Sally Hawkins. I’ve seen Hawkins in just a handful of movies at this point and can’t get enough of her. Rita will somehow find herself at the center of the labor debates that were grinding England’s workforce to a halt at the time, and eventually she will be responsible for the first worldwide shift towards equal pay for women.

The filmmakers surround Hawkins with a large cast of characters that are typical in these British feel good flicks. If anything, the monumental influence this woman had on the world of labor is downplayed here in favor of good characters that you want to root for. Even the villains here are sympathetic because of the unreasonable positions their employers insist they take.

Harry Brown (2009) ***
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham

“Harry Brown” is a British “Death Wish” that, like so many British versions of American commodities, actually thinks about what it’s doing. Michael Caine stars as an elderly gentleman living in a crime-ridden housing project. When some gang members kill his friend, he uses his special forces training from years before to take his revenge. This isn’t just some old man running around killing a bunch of moral deprived punks, however. Well, actually, that’s how it really thinks about it. He is old. Going around just shooting kids isn’t as easy as one might believe it is for a retiree.

I like the way this movie really contemplates the lives of these aging men, who have sacrificed for their country only to watch it fall apart in their final years. Caine is as brilliant as ever at conveying thoughts and emotions well beyond the dialogue he’s given. I didn’t like the casting of Emily Mortimer as the detective investigating the killing of Caine’s friend. In the environment she is in, she needs to be tough as nails, but Mortimer plays her with the typical fragility she usually finds herself cast in. I believe Mortimer is capable of playing the role well, so I don’t blame her as much as the director, who should’ve pushed her to be harder, not softer.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) ***
Director: Jean-François Richet
Writers: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet, Jacques Mesrine (book “L’instinct de mort”)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Roy Dupuis, Elena Anaya, Florence Thomassin

In “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” we get the story of real life French criminal Jacques Mesrine. It looks at Mesrine’s evolution to the criminal he will eventually become. French superstar Vincent Cassel (known to many Americans for his role as the artistic director of the dance company in “Black Swan”) plays Mesrine. We see the way his service in the French Army helps to form the killer he will become. Cassel is at once charming and ferocious as the gangster.

The movie takes us from his service to his introduction to the mob, through his reckless bank robberies, to his exile in Canada, where he made not only a daring prison escape, but attempted to return to break out the friends he left behind. The fact that he survived these prison breaks is amazing in and of itself.  

Despite how detailed this two-part biopic is about this elusive criminal, much of it feels episodic, which takes away from its power to a slight degree. He was known as both Public Enemy #1 and The Man of a Thousand Faces. The later might explain why it is hard for the filmmakers to pin down just who this man was, but I would’ve liked to see more about what made him tick to go along with all his astonishing feats.

I Am Cuba  (1964) ****
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Writers: Enrique Pineda Barnet, Yevgeni Yectushenko
Starring: Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo, Raúl García, Luz Maria Collazo, Jean Buisse, Alberto Morgan, Celia Rodriguez

Roger Ebert often recounts the idiom that the success of a movie has nothing to do with what it is about, but rather how it is about it. I can think of few better representations of this credo than Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba”. Kalatozov’s blatantly propaganda driven film has no right to be as good as it is. Made at the height of Castro’s revolution to depose dictator Fulgencio Batista, “I Am Cuba” is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen.

The movie consists of four vignettes about four different areas of Cuban culture. The first shows an escort in a club who must suffer decadent American clientele to make a living that only allows her to live in a hovel in the city’s shantytown. The second shows us a farmer who tries to provide a future for his family with his sugar cane crop, but is undermined by greedy landlords. The third gives us a revolutionary protester who wants to assassinate a general who cruelly deals with peaceful protesters, but he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction eventually costs him everything. The final segment shows a soldier of Castro’s revolutionary army. The movie doesn’t shy away from how tough the life of a revolutionary soldier is, but preaches the communist ideals that the revolutionaries are trying to achieve.

Sadly, Castro’s revolution did not change life for the little people in the way this film suggests it will. Kalatozov’s representation of Cuba shows it as beautiful land with people who deserve the spoils of war and have something worth fighting for. There are shots in this film that are nearly inexplicable in how they were achieved. And, if I didn’t know better, it’d make me a believer.

Black Panther: The Animated Series (2010) **
Director: Mark Brooks
Writer: Reginald Hudlin (comics)
Starring: Stephen Stanton, Djimon Hounsou, Carl Lumbly, JB Blanc, David Busch, Peter Laurie, Kerry Washington, Rick D. Wasserman, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott

Black Panther was always one of my favorite Marvel superheroes. He was always slightly isolated from the rest of the Marvel superheroes, because he was the king of his own small African nation. His adventures tended toward political espionage, more than super powered mayhem. His enemies were men in suits with teams of Special Forces troops, and much of the conflict came from real issues that the world was facing, like environmental abuse and energy power mongering.

When I discovered that BET had produced an animated series based on the comic book, I was intrigued. It made sense to me that a black network recognized the importance of such a superhero. Unfortunately, the series treats Panther all too much like a typical superhero. He’s still the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, and they’ve attempted to frame this particular adventure on a global scale, but the filmmakers succumb to the pressures of place more popular superheroes throughout Black Panther’s story. Captain America shows up in the first episode and eventually many of the more popular X-Men make an appearance.

The villains he faces seem culled from all over the Marvel universe, although maybe they have historically tread on Panther’s path. I don’t know for sure. For the most part these villains are more silly than they are serious, and it seems as if the writers had more ideas than they had time for in the ten-minute episodes. It isn’t a terrible comic book animation, but it isn’t great either. It’s also important to note that this cartoon is not aimed at children. It contains bloody and disturbing images.

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