Friday, July 01, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: June 24-30

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) **
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Writers: Ulf Rayberg, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nykvist, Lena Endre, Annika Hallin, Anders Ahlbom Rosendhal, Mikael Spreitz

The first thing that comes to mind after finishing the Millennium Trilogy, based on the best selling novels by Stieg Larsson, is that I hope the Hollywood adaptations stop with the first one. I loved “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, and the David Fincher directed Hollywood version scheduled to hit theaters in December looks even better than the original Swedish version. I am amazed at how bad the sequels are. They utilize the same cast, but under the direction of Daniel Alfredson it all goes terribly wrong. I don’t know if he was unable to key in on those winning elements that the first film’s director Niels Arden Oplev was able to highlight in order to turn that one into a pulpy but compelling thriller.

Perhaps the problem is the source material itself. Unread by me, I’ve heard that the novels aren’t really that good. Story wise “Tattoo” seems as if it could easily stand alone as a self-contained story about justice for a couple of sexually deviant predators. The second two follow a couple of small strands from the first story that lead to a government conspiracy about a Russian defector who was protected by the state from blame for his heinous crimes because the information he gave them was so invaluable. Since we never learn anything about the information he provided, the trouble to cover up his crimes seems unwarranted. His crimes don’t reach a scale that seems to warrant such protection. It seems it would’ve been easier to let his accusers convict him and give him a cushy punishment. I don’t mean to imply that rape and spousal abuse are not horrendous crimes, but they are hardly the high crimes against the state that a government cover up is.

In truth, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” isn’t as poorly made as “The Girl Who Played with Fire”. It doesn’t have all the ridiculously underwhelming plot twists of that movie. It’s a bore. The big criminals are a bunch of dying men, and the final confrontation the girl has with the albino beast from the second film is contrived for the sole purpose of having a little action thrown into the story’s climax. I’d rather just remember the juicy pulp of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and try to imagine how much more rich it will be with the moodiness and style that Fincher will bring to the story.

I Saw the Devil (2011) ***½
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writer: Hoon-jung Park
Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Ho-jin Jeon, San-ha Ho, Yoon-seo Kim

Does justice even exist? This is the question at the center of the Korean crime thriller “I Saw the Devil”. It is a dark look at a sexual predator and the policeman turned vigilante that tries to exact vengeance when his fiancé becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Told with the stark visual frankness and subtle brilliance that has come to distinguish Korean cinema as one of the best cinematic producing countries in the world, “I Saw the Devil” is harsh and bloody and certainly not a movie that people with weak stomachs should have to endure. It had me cringing. It also had me wondering just where the line between entertainment and perverse voyeurism falls exactly. This is particularly discomforting since there are several depraved voyeurs depicted in this film.

The conclusion that “I Saw the Devil” draws is grim, and that could be considered an understatement. The killer declares that he had won their contest the moment it started. Nothing that could be done to him could ever replace the lives he took away from the policeman. His fiancé confessed before her death that she was pregnant. It doesn’t matter how harsh his punishment, how much his pain. He’s a bad man, so the death or suffering of a good person will always be worse than his own.

Despite it’s bleak outlook, it’s hard to look away from “I Saw the Devil”. The destruction these men are able to wreck upon each other is devastating and incredibly inventive. They are both compelling characters on top of their crimes against each other. It’s not really about what drives them, but their drive is unrelenting and infectious.

The film could also be an argument against typical revenge movies as well. Typically, by the end of the confrontation the two forces find themselves sharing a strange sort of mutual respect for each other. There is no respect claimed by either combatant here, only frustration and despair.

Love & Other Drugs (2010) **½
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Charles Randolph, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Jamie Reidy (“Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Josh Gad, Oliver Platt, Hand Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Greer

There’s something more charming than it deserves about “Love & Other Drugs”. Perhaps that charm factor is due to its stars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal. They’ve played a couple before, but were never really able to explore their charming screen personalities so well, since he was a cowboy in love with another cowboy that time. Here we get full-on heterosexual charm from these two powerful screen presences, with an extra helping of the sexuality.

These two are naked a lot in this movie. But then, it is about one of the salesmen who helped Viagra become one of the biggest phenomena of the pharmaceutical world in the late 90s. It doesn’t seem either of these two needed it, however. The movie focuses more on the love affair than the pharmaceutical side. I don’t know if this makes the movie better or worse, though.

The trick is that she has early onset Parkinson’s disease. Again, I don’t know if this makes the movie better or not. I don’t think so. Despite her illness there’s more comedy than drama to this romance, which marginalizes her illness. The heavier focus on their relationship also marginalizes the sales life of Jamie Reily, upon whose memoir, “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”, the film is based.

The big problem with all these margin notes is that although Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are impossibly charming, the movie losses fizzle at about the beginning of its third act. The Hollywood machinations of the typical romance set in and we’re beginning to wonder just what happened to the pharmaceutical sales angle that set all these events into motion. I would’ve liked to have learned more specific details about Jamie’s brother as well, who got rich with an IPO and just seems to exist here as a comedic prop rather than a real person. But hey, it is fun to watch two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors having sex with witty banter for a while.

Arrested Development, Season 2 (2004-2005) ****
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, Mae Whitman, Liza Minnelli, Judy Greer, Jeff Garlin

In its second season, “Arrested Development” keeps consistent with its peculiar comedy based on the eccentric and often absurd antics of the dysfunctional Bluth family.  The most amazing feat the writers accomplish in this brilliant series is to continually come up with new ways for Michael’s family to make his task of righting the Bluth ship impossible. Michael doesn’t always help himself either. I like the way the writers are able to allow all the Bluth dysfunction to pop up in its sanest member at just the wrong times.

There’s a bit of the impression that this is all one long sustained and repeated joke, but it’s such a good joke, you can’t really fault the series for it. The dynamic never really changes in the Bluth family, but the details make them indelible.

Favorite aspect of season two: Martin Short as the uncle who really isn’t an uncle and must be carried around because his legs gave out on him during a weightlifting stunt.

Live Flesh (1997) ****
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Writers: Pedro Almodovar, Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Ray Loriga, Ruth Rendell (novel)
Starring: Liberto Rabal, Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Angela Molina, Jose Sancho, Penelope Cruz

There’s so much to say about this classic Spanish language film by auteur Pedro Almodovar. But, that’s really a way of saying I’m not going to say them. I’ll try. What immediately comes to mind.

The colors. So rich. So involving. Nothing like the dark murky Hollywood fare that populates the metroplex.

Hitchcock. Many compare Almodovar’s style to Hitch’s. I’ve certainly seen that, but this one was the least Hitchcockian to me. I think that’s because each of the three characters in the love triangle get equal time. The crime, while evoking Hitchcock’s favorite theme of the man wrongly accused, isn’t one of those large conspiracy types that had Cary Grant gallivanting with blondes. I suppose Javier Bardem is a sort of Spanish equivalent of Grant.

The sex. The sex in Almodovar’s films is hot and sensual. You can see the same amount of skin in an American film, but it doesn’t have the same impact.

I can’t do this movie justice, and these little blurps are a sad attempt. I’m sorry for that. But if you watch this movie, you will find yourself swept up in the lives of these people that go places you’ll never expect, with results you haven’t seen before. You will see people fighting against what’s served to them, but eventually accepting what they can’t control. Two supporting characters aren’t so lucky. They fight and never accept.

Western of the Week

Chisum (1970) ***
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Writer: Andrew J. Fenday
Starring: John Wayne, Geoffrey Deuel, Forrest Tucker, Ben Johnson, Pamela McMyler, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Knowles, Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Lynda Day, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Cabot

“Chisum” is the second western I’ve seen lately that places Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid into a story that isn’t really about them and imagines them as friends before Garrett is commissioned out to hunt down Billy Bonney. But, like I said this isn’t really their story. In this version it’s John Chisum’s. If you can get past the ridiculous theme song, it turns out to be a pretty good western. Not a great one, but good.

Billy actually factors pretty heavily into John Chisum’s story of fighting the Lincoln County land war, a subject that was also featured in the 1988 western “Young Guns”. I don’t remember Billy and Pat being such buddies in that one, but it’s been a while. The story of the land war is actually fairly fascinating. It’s one of those areas in history where the history books just kind of say we went west and the notions of land rights and political manipulation of the power that went with the land is fairly well ignored.

As a John Wayne flick, you don’t really see the Duke do too much heavy lifting until the final shoot out. Rumor has it Wayne complained that his stunt double in the final fight was too obvious. I wasn’t really thinking about it as I watched and didn’t notice. What I did notice was how much of an action flick this movie that had opened on pretty mellow notes had turned out to be. This is a pretty good example of a classic western in the way it features a big name star, dealt with the land and scenery, and has plenty of bullets flying to keep people interested.

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