Saturday, August 13, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Aug. 5-11

Western of the Week

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) ****
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus, Forrest Carter (book “Gone to Texas”)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Bill McKinney, John Vernon, Sam Bottoms, Sondra Locke, Paula Trueman, Geraldine Keams, Woodrow Parfrey

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” has long been the official film of the Wells clan. Well, for the men anyway. This was the film that, no matter what our differences, bonded my brother, my father, and me together. It was the first DVD I ever pre-ordered. It’s the western I judge all other westerns against. I even had the name Josey on all of my kids’ name lists before they were born, so we could have a kid names ‘Josey Wells’. Isn’t that awesome? My wife feared the name would predetermine the child to be an outlaw. Pfffst!

Here’s the really funny thing. Up until this screening, I never really saw it as a four star movie. I figured I was biased toward it. I thought some of the acting might’ve been stiff. I thought the blood was too fake. I mean it really couldn’t have been as great as the regard in which my family held it, could it? Well, it turns out that it is.

This is a truly great western. It doesn’t care that it teeters on the edge of episodic rambling. In doing so, it gives us one of the greatest streams of characters the genre has ever witnessed. From Sam Bottoms’ greenhorn rebel, to Chief Dan George’s comedic oddball Indian chief; from the trappers doing dark dealings in the back rooms of trading posts, to the wide-eyed doe Sandra Locke; from the level headed warrior chief who understands the state of the world better than the U.S. government, to the sympathetic Judas played by John Vernon; this is one of the greatest cast of characters to populate just about any genre.

Plus, this is one of the most quotable westerns ever made.

“Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?”

Josie: “When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.”
Lone Waite: “I notice when you get to dislikin’ someone they ain’t around long either.”

“I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

“Buzzards gotta eat, same as birds.”

“I always heard there were three kinds of suns in Kansas, sunshine, sunflowers, and sons-of-bitches.”

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.”

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) **½
Director: George Nolfi
Writers: George Nolfi, Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp

“The Adjustment Bureau” is a well-made thriller. In terms of providing an entertainment with some twists and turns, it succeeds. But as a science fiction exercise, it feels somewhat flat. I like the ideas in Philip K. Dick’s stories. He’s provided some of the best material to be transformed into celluloid magic. I fear the short story status of his original material kind of shows through here, though.

I don’t know if the elements I had problems with came from the source material or were inserted by the screenwriters to stretch it into feature-length. The filmmakers introduce an idea that this adjustment bureau might have something to do with our notions of celestial beings. It never really develops this idea, though. If you’re going to make religious allegory a part of your premise, then it seems to me some actual Biblical referencing should be present. Here God and angels are just used as a parallel explanation of just what is going on in the plot. There is no commentary made on religion or our reliance on it or how it relates to the world we live in today. These are the edicts of science fiction that just aren’t utilized here.

I also felt the resolution didn’t quite mesh with the movie’s notions on fate vs. free will. The road to these points is exciting and even intriguing, but if that’s all this movie is trying to accomplish it might as well have been another Jason Bourne movie. Science fiction requires a little more.

Cedar Rapids (2011) ***
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writer: Phil Johnston
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Sigourney Weaver

“Cedar Rapids” is a surprisingly endearing movie about an endearing and sheltered man played by the endearing Ed Helms. That is not to say endearing in the sense that it’s for kids as it is a decidedly adult comedy that will only play well to people who don’t have a problem with foul language, adultery, and heavy drug use.

Helms plays an insurance salesman who leaves his small town for the first time to attend the regional conference in Cedar Rapids. There he meets a character played by John C. Reilly like a slightly grown up version of his “Step Brothers” character. Only slightly more grown up.

Needless to say Helms has his own mid-life coming of age event while at the conference. We are treated to a fairly standard formula in a very charming and humorous way. This won’t be one of the most memorable movies you’ve ever seen, but it will provide a nice night of comedy in a more adult manner than many other films of similar nature.

Fire in the Sky (1993) ***
Director: Robert Lieberman
Writers: Tracy Tormé, Travis Walton (book)
Starring: Robert Patrick, D.B. Sweeney, Craig Sheffer, James Garner, Peter Berg, Henry Thomas, Bradley Gregg, Noble Willingham, Kathleen Wilhoite

Since its release in 1993, I’ve always heard good things about the alien abduction movie “Fire in the Sky” from the few people who’ve seen it. Most of what I had seen of the movie up to this point involved a scene when the abducted man awakens inside the alien spacecraft, but this story isn’t really about the abduction so much as it is about the people who weren’t abducted and the hardships they face from their implausible story about witnessing their friend’s abduction.

Allegedly based on true events, the film doesn’t dawdle in the fantasy elements more commonly associated with alien conspiracy plots. It looks hard at the implications for a few blue-collar people claiming to theirs piers that they’ve had an alien encounter. Robert Patrick plays the central character, D.B. Sweeney the abductee. Both actors bring real fears and confused impulses to the roles that reflect a realistic view of what such an experience would bring.

The movie is far from perfect. An overdramatized opening is obviously designed to pull the audience’s interest in with some fabricated action. Also James Garner’s character’s interest in the case seems to run longer than a man of his nature would remain interested. Perhaps they felt they needed the threat of some sort of villain, but I’m guessing the real law enforcement officer did not remain involved in the case after the missing man was found.

Stake Land (2011) ***
Director: Jim Mickle
Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle,
Starring: Conner Paolo, Nick Damici, Michael Cheveris, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Sean Nelson

“Stake Land” is yet another vampire/zombie movie. I suppose it’s really a zombie movie, although they refer to the undead creatures here as vampires. They have fangs and must be killed with a steak to the heart or the back of the head. Other than those details everything about these things smells of zombies.

It’s actually a pretty good piece of independent filmmaking. It shows us a gritty dystopian world that reminded me a good deal of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It doesn’t have much good to say about religion, although the “vampires” themselves aren’t given much religious allegory. More dangerous than the vampires in many ways are the religious cults that have sprouted out of this human plague.

Although the movie is quite gory, it does a good job focusing more on the characters than on the action and mythology of how these vampire/zombies work. The story starts out with the vampire hunter Mister and a boy he saves. As these two search for a safe haven from the vampires they pick up other people along the way and form a patchwork family.

The movie never really gets close to any sort of greatness because it doesn’t place its aims so high. It’s content to be a B-grade horror flick that only scratches at the surface of commentary and allegory. If you’re a horror buff, you’ll quite enjoy this one. If you’re looking for more than just horror, it unfortunately falls squarely in a subgenre that has just been done to death lately. It never makes the effort to transcend that subgenre.

On a side note: Have you ever wondered what happened to “Witness” and “Top Gun” female star Kelly McGillis? She was one of those short-lived 80’s starlets, whose star burned bright for a few really big hits of the decade and then disappeared into television obscurity in the 90s. Well, she’s still out there earning a buck as an actor. In fact she’s right here in “Stake Land” in the role of Sister (as in nun). But, if you remember her as the smoldering evaluation officer of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”, you won’t recognize her here. She’s one of those rare cases among actors who have actually allowed herself to age over the years.

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