Friday, August 26, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Aug. 19-25

Super (2011) ***
Director/Writer: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry, Nathan Fillion

The everyday man superhero movie “Super” presents a problem and highlights a disturbing trend in a certain subgenre of these costumed vigilante movies. I’ll start off by saying I liked “Super”, but it does concern me.

The story follows Frank, a pathetic man played by Rainn Wilson from “The Office”. Frank’s wife leaves him for a drug dealer who is supplying her. This inspires Frank to invent a superhero alter ego, who fights crime with a pipe wrench. Eventually, he picks up a sidekick played by an overenthusiastic Ellen Page.

What is disturbing is the nature of Frank’s vigilante justice, which is over the top and ultra-violent. His justice might be seen as perfect for the drug dealer, but may be excessive when he pummels a guy and his girlfriend in the head with his wrench for cutting in line at a movie theater.

The inappropriately violent nature of the vigilante here brings to mind the movie “Kick-Ass”, which imagined an 11-year-old girl blowing people away point blank with a gun. I think I liked “Kick-Ass” too, but a second viewing (which I don’t plan) might swing me in the opposing direction. “Kick-Ass” really glorifies its violence in a way the might seem easier to take for some, but really makes its depictions even more disturbing.

“Super” doesn’t glorify it’s violent much, but just in the depiction of it I had to wonder, if we’re not supposed to admire what we’re seeing, then what are we supposed to think about it? Certainly it is a criticism of certain aspects in our society that we tout as sort of magical forms of justice, like certain forms of faith and superhero worship. Frank does have a conscience and tries to only punish bad men. Considering the “happy” ending, it seems to be trying to say that Frank was right in the end; but his actions throughout don’t really support that conclusion, especially considering his sidekick. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to think about this movie.

Limitless (2011) ***
Director: Neil Burger
Writers: Leslie Dixon, Alan Glynn (novel “The Dark Fields”)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert DeNiro, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana

When my wife and I watch movies together, we’re usually a little freer with our viewing etiquette than we might be with others. I taught her a bad habit of grunting whenever something comes up that surprises us. I’m also a little too liberal with allowing myself to voice my opinion of the movie while we’re watching it.

During our screening of “Limitless” there seemed to be less of our poor audience behavior than normal, although much of our grunting is done so unconsciously that we don’t even notice it anymore. There was almost no running commentary by myself until the very end of the movie when I uttered “Well, if he’s so smart, shouldn’t he have seen that coming?” Within seconds the movie proved that it was already ahead of me with its final developments.

Essentially, this movie about a man who discovers a drug that allows him to access the 80 percent of our brain they say we don’t use kept our interest extremely well and offered little that we could criticize or take apart at the time of viewing. That’s not to say this is a great movie by any stretch, but it is entertaining and will surprise you. You can’t really ask for much more in a thriller.

Western of the Week

13 Assassins (2011) ****
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan, Kaneo Ikegami (based on a screenplay by)
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuki Iseya, Gorô Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masakata Kubota, Sôsuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku, Yûma Ishigaki, Kôen Kondô

Huh? Western of the Week?! But, this is a samurai movie, you say? Indeed it is. Japanese filmmakers have never been shy about admitting the influence of the American Western on their own Samurai genre. Every time I watch a Samurai film, I can’t help but thinking about my favorite westerns.

“13 Assassins”, like many recent Samurai films, takes place in the final days of the Shogun feudal governments of Japan, just before the current Meiji government was developed. Many of these movies tackle the issues of a dying breed, much like Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western “Unforgiven”.

“13 Assassins”, however, plays nothing like such westerns, which tend to be slow and contemplative. “13 Assassins” is more like the action western “Silverado” on steroids. Director Takashi Miike arms his production with gallons and gallons of blood. He might’ve used a whole tanker full.

Despite it’s focus on action, “13 Assassins” is also steeped in politics. Much like the blood, the politics overflow in this plot with the characters immersed in the politics of politics, even though the samurai only serve the politicians. To describe the plot might confuse readers, which is unnecessary when all you really need to know is that 13 samurai assassins are assembled to murder a very bad man who is about to become very powerful. Needless to say, the bad man has a lot of protection, hence the vast quantities of blood.

Sports Night, Season 1 (1998-99) ***½
Creator: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Josh Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume

Before “The West Wing” and the grossly underrated “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin created his first underrated television program about a ESPN style sports highlight show called “Sports Night”. The show displays Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue and intellectuals who are smarter than any real people, but are also a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Coming off his Oscar winning adapted screenplay for “The Social Network”, Sorkin’s smart dialogue driven dramedy style seems to be back in vogue, so it’s a perfect time to check out this once hidden gem of a television show. You can’t elp but like his characters, who are so fun to be around but all have their own individual flaws. The show was also an introduction to then unknown actors Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman, who both star in hit television shows today. The show also introduced some of Sorkin’s revolving company that would later make the rounds in “The West Wing” and “Studio 60”.

There are some rough spots still showing in Sorkin’s style, mostly due to the way his more serious approach to comedy clashed with television sitcom practices of the late 1990s. There is a barely audible laugh track that may have been a precursor to the eventual elimination of the laugh track in some of the aught’s best sitcom programming. This material really couldn’t sustain a laugh track because it treads too often in drama instead of slapstick. Sometimes the reaching for laughs clashes with the reaching for depth here. But, for the most part, “Sports Night” is an example of the best television can offer an audience willing to dispose of labels and clichés.

Take Me Home Tonight (2011) **½
Director: Michael Dowse
Writers: Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Topher Grace, Gordon Kaywin
Starring: Topher Grace, Dan Folger, Teresa Palmer, Anna Farris, Chris Pratt, Michael Biehn

“Take Me Home Tonight” is a valuable movie if only as a frame to hang all the one hit wonders of its 80’s music soundtrack on. If you grew up in the 80’s, you can’t watch this movie without finding yourself humming along to some of the forgotten gems that made up the soundtrack of your youth. For that reason alone, I would suspect many people will enjoy this movie.

The interesting thing is that the movie itself isn’t really all that bad. It’s merely homage to 80’s raunch comedies in which young adults try to recapture the glory of their high school days by getting caught up in all the drama and social categorizing of that torturous period in life. It doesn’t add much to this highly specialized subgenre, but it doesn’t get it wrong either.

The main storyline involves Topher Grace, who after  “That 70’s Show”, apparently wanted to relive the high school days of another decade, one in which he was at least alive if not actually attended high school. Grace has graduated from MIT, but can’t seem to find any joy in the prospect of settling into a career for the rest of his life, so he’s living at home and working in a video store. When his high school crush walks into his work one day, he’s inspired to make good on all his pining from high school.

As these comedies tend to go, all the characters eventually end up at a big party where great quantities of alcohol and drugs are consumed and many secrets that most involved would want to remain so are revealed. His sister’s storyline seemed a little less developed and tacked on for extra content purposes. Despite Anna Ferris’s perky attempts to elevate her role as the sister, her story just doesn’t ring as universal as the rest of the movie and interrupts the momentum of everything else.

I can’t get whole-heartedly behind this movie, however much the soundtrack inspires me to. It seems a little unnecessary today for anything beyond nostalgic purposes.

No comments: