Thursday, September 29, 2011

Horrorfest ‘11

Temperatures are beginning to drop. The wind is rising up. And, WalMart has filled their front aisles with bags of candy as if shoppers are going to be handing them out tomorrow and knowing full well they’re going to eat them and come back for more before Halloween. That’s right. At A Penny in the Well that means it is time for the annual Horrorfest. I’m so excited.

Streaming movies has put a whole new twist on Horrorfest, now that I’ve really begun to capitalize on the technology. It means that Horrorfest can include potentially thousands of horror movies. It makes writing a preview for each new Horrorfest a little more difficult, as I can pick and chose movies more in tune with my daily whims. I’ll try my best to prepare my faithful readers on what to expect from this year’s Horrorfest films.

Some movies I know I will be watching this year include our opening film, David Cronenberg’s typically disturbing take on video game culture “eXistenZ”, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and a young Jude Law. I’m not sure how much of a horror film this is, but with the organic video game controllers sported in the film, it’s sure to be a little quease inducing, very graphic, and ultimately unsettling enough to fit right in with the Horrorfest atmosphere.

Some of the recent theatrical releases that have made it to BluRay that I will be watching include, the video game adaptation “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night”, Nicolas Cage’s medieval supernatural thriller “Season of the Witch”, the latest Twilightian take on Little Red Riding Hood, which drops the “little” from its title, another swipe by Paul Bettany to carry a religious themed horror actioner in “Priest”, Anthony Hopkins nod to the exorcism route “The Rite”, and the team that brought us “Paranormal Activity” shows us just how scary kids can be in “Insidious”.

Speaking of kids, I am a family man, and as usual I will include some family programming in this year’s fright fest. One of my wife’s favorites from childhood is the comedy horror spoof “Transylvania 6-5000”. We’ll see how our kids feel about that one. The boys and I will also take a dark journey into the fantasy world of Jim Henson in “The Dark Crystal”.

The centerpiece of this year’s festival will be a look at the classic Universal monster “The Mummy”. We’re not going on an Indiana Jones inspired adventure with Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz, however. No, we’ll be revisiting the one that starred Boris Karloff wrapped in toilet paper, the 1932 original. We’ll also watch Universal’s resurrection of the franchise to capitalize off their other monsters’ success starting in 1940 with “The Mummy’s Hand”, and continuing with “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942), “The Mummy’s Ghost” (1944), and “The Mummy’s Curse” (1944). That should be plenty of dead Egyptians for this year.

As usual, we will also be visiting an array of cult horror flicks thanks to the convenience of Netflix Instant Streaming and Crackle. Some of the titles will include, the French zombie flick “The Horde”, the controversially disturbing picture “The Human Centipede: First Sequence”, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hallucinatory “Santa Sangre”, last year’s summer’s end sleeper “The Last Exorcism”, the second of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy “Inferno”, and “Trick ‘r Treat” is a recent cult flick that I’ve always heard good things about.

We will have our requisite trip back to the silent era of filmmaking with a classic horror tale. German filmmaking great F.W. Murnau will darken Horrorfest’s door once again with his take on “Faust”. We will also try to endure the French erotic vampire film “Lips of Blood” without subtitles. The lack of subtitles seems to be the primary argument on Netflix keeping this movie’s star rating down. We’ll see if it’s all that bad or if people should just learn to get over the language barrier.

We’ll also tackle a new subgenre of horror for this year’s festival. In keeping with my desire to watch a western every week for this entire year, we’ll be taking a swing at the rather shaky looking hybrid of the horror western. We’ll be looking at the questionably titled movies “Quick and the Undead” and “Undead or Alive”. “The Burrowers” looks to be the only of this experiment that might actually be good. I don’t know if I can handle any more than three horror westerns, though.

And finally, we will try to grab a couple of horror flicks in the cinema for some full-length reviews. This year I’d like to try to see “The Thing”, the remake of the remake of “The Thing from Another World” with Mary Elizabeth Winsted in the Kurt Russell role. I’d also like to see if the “Paranormal Activity” crew can keep the quality of the franchise up with their prequel to the first movie in “Paranormal Activity 3”.

As is always the case when I write my annual Horrorfest preview, I cannot wait to start watching these movies. As with last year’s Horrorfest, our weekly feature Penny Thoughts will be replaced for the month of October with Horror Thoughts so all of you can follow along at home. Now, turn off the lights and watch some scary movies.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Drive / ***½ (R)

Driver: Ryan Gosling
Irene: Carey Mulligan
Shannon: Bryan Cranston
Bernie Rose: Albert Brooks
Standard: Oscar Isaac
Blanche: Christina Hendricks
Nino: Ron Perlman

FilmDistrict presents a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Hossein Amini. Based on the novel by James Sallis. Running time: 100 min. Rated R (for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity).

“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive.”

This is the sales pitch given by the man known only as Driver in the new thriller “Drive”. The movie isn’t about his getaways, though; it’s about his life in between the getaways.

Ryan Gosling (“Half Nelson”) plays Driver as a stoic. That’s an understatement. He makes Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name look like a party animal. He doesn’t feel like one of those people who’s been holding things in and is about to explode. It’s very clear that his unnerving calm is what allows him to stay in control of every element in his life. He’s considering letting go of some of that control, however.

As is usually the case when men lose control, there’s this woman, a neighbor in his apartment building. Her name is Irene (Carey Mulligan, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”). You can see that Driver wishes to ask her out. Finally, after running into her often enough to seem a sign, he speaks with her. He starts spending time with her and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Benicio’s father is serving a prison sentence. Irene likes Driver, but I don’t know how she knows he likes her. We know it because we spend so much time with him.

Most of that time is spent with his mentor and manager, Shannon (Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”). Shannon, a former stunt driver himself, manages both Driver’s daytime work and his extra curricular activities. Shannon wants to manage Driver into a stock car racing career, but needs money from his sometimes employer Bernie Rose. Comedian Albert Brooks (“Broadcast News”) makes a career spinning turn as the not-so-nice small time gangster, Bernie.

Bernie’s much nicer than his business partner, Nino (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”), however. It doesn’t take a degree in film study to predict that Driver will eventually end up on the wrong side of his business dealings with Bernie and Nino, but I like the way the plot takes him there on an unpredictable path. That unusual plotting also comes into play in the way Driver’s relationship with Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac, “Sucker Punch”), plays out after he’s released from prison.

Plotting isn’t really what this movie is about, however. Under the direction of Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive” is more about mood than anything. The movie is Driver’s stoic personality down to its core. From the droning electronic score by Cliff Martinez (“Traffic”) and its accompanying ‘80’s style music with its detached vocals to the slow tracking camera movements by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“The Usual Suspects”), the filmmakers take on a poker face mirrored by their main character. This film doesn’t blink. It doesn’t give anything away, but it draws you into its foreign world of crime and punishment through the service entrance. Driver’s actions, or rather inaction, often feel gauche in this thriller setting, but they never betray his character or the intentions of the filmmakers.

Refn, in this film and his previous films “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”, proves himself to be a stylish filmmaker with a knack for turning seemingly typical thriller material into character driven approaches to action filmmaking. Along with his screenwriter, Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove”), Refn isn’t afraid to quiet the thriller format down to make a thinking man’s action movie. With an economy of words and a heavy reliance on photography, this film artist has been able to redefine genre filmmaking into a hybrid of great dramatic filmmaking and terse action elements. “Drive” might seem awkward to filmgoers expecting a typical crime thriller, but it will seem divine to those more willing to try a new twist on an old recipe.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Sept. 16-22

King Kong (1933) ****
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Shoedsack
Writers: James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Nobel Johnson

For the first time, my boys have watched the original “King Kong”. I gave them a choice. I offered them the original black and white version or the color 1976 version with the Twin Towers instead of the Empire State Building. I told them they had to wait the see the 2005 version because there were some pretty scary images in that one. I didn’t mention its three-hour running time.

Jude wanted the original. Jack wanted the color one. I believe that was his only argument against the original. He didn’t want to see a black & white movie. Jude reminded him that they had seen a Three Stooges movie in black & white, and it was really funny. Jack eventually caved, and we watched the original.

The boys really enjoyed it. I don’t think they appreciated it quite as much as I did. I really admire the non-special effects sequences for their frankness about Fay Wray’s sexuality and Carl Denham’s honest obsession. Jack noted that Bruce Cabot, despite his poor acting skills, looked a lot like Harrison Ford. Jack also continuously commented on the “cheesy” special effects. I tried explaining to him that at the time, those special effects were state of the art. That didn’t matter to him. They were still cheesy.

Patton Oswalt Finest Hour (2011) ***
Director: Jason Woliner
Wrtier/Star: Patton Oswalt

Comedian Patton Oswalt is one of the great comic observers of our times. Coming out of the nerd culture that has become the mainstream, Oswalt’s observations on the hypocrisy of people in general and the entertainment industry specifically make for some of the funniest comic bits by any comedian out there.

In “Finest Hour”, Oswalt offers commentary on subjects as diverse as being a role model to his daughter, the unlikely survival of circuses as an entertainment venue, and the displeasures of being a New York City resident. He makes oblique pop culture references and comments on universal experiences. Oswalt’s comedy will make you laugh and think. That’s the best kind of comedy there is.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) **
Director: Rodman Flender
Starring: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Jack Black, Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, Kyle Gass, Jon Hamm, Jack McBrayer, Jon Stewart, Eddie Vedder, Jack White

Everybody thought the firing of Conan O’Brien from the Tonight Show was one of entertainment’s greatest all-time tragedies. I felt NBC made a cowardly move, but it was business. I admire O’Brien’s brand of humor and am glad that he found a new home to continue it. One of the best-known stipulations of the settlement clause he made with NBC for their breach of contract was that he would not compete against them on late night television for 8 months, or some such time frame. What was Conan to do with that free time? That is the subject of the new documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”.

The doc follows the live road show Conan put together during those months. It gives us all the backstage rundown of the affair and some of the onstage antics as well. What it does not give us is anything of substance or value. There is no real insight into the life of the popular late night entertainer. There are a few scenes where he has trouble controlling his temper over the craziness of what he has chosen for himself. Those are the movie’s most interesting.

For the most part, this doc is a one-note tune played repetitively over the course of an hour and a half.  There’s too much of Conan telling us that he lost his job and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. There’s too much of Conan arguing some minute detail of the production and ultimately getting his way. There’s too much of everyone in Conan’s presence laughing at whatever insults he jokingly slings around, while none of the other writers appear to contribute anything to the show. And never once is the very large cash settlement for an undisclosed amount paid to Conan by NBC ever even hinted at. I was very disappointed that this documentary felt so guarded by its own subject matter.

Double Take (2009) **
Director: John Grimonprez
Writers: John Grimonprez, Tom McCarthy (story)
Starring: Ron Burrage, Mark Perry, Alfred Hitchcock, John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Walter Cronkite, Tippi Hedron, Richard Nixon, Diana Ross, Fidel Castro

The documentary “Double Take” is the first movie in a long time that I can say that I just don’t get. I don’t get it. It’s a history of the Cold War as told through archival footage and the words, dreams and movies of Alfred Hitchcock. That much I get I suppose, but I don’t get why or what I’m really supposed to take from it.

The movie plays like some sort of dream. It’s a collage of images and a montage of words. Many of the images are well known from both the Cold War and Hitchcock’s films. The words are likewise. Some of the soundbites of Hitchcock and rerecorded soundbites by a soundalike are easily relatable to the Cold War. Others remain a mystery. I don’t know what his story about the origin of his famous film term McGuffin has to do with our conflict with Russia.

Really, at the end of this film I’m at a loss to even come up with any sort of judgment of it. It exists as its own entity, and I have little with which to put in perspective for myself let alone others. Certainly, if you’re a Hitchcock fan or a follower of the history of the Cold War, this movie will contain points of interest. I can’t say it provides any worthwhile thesis on either subject, however. Or maybe it does, and I just don’t see it.

Western of the Week

Tom Horn (1980) **
Director: William Wiard
Writers: Thomas McGuane, Bud Sharke
Starring: Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Peter Canon, Elisha Cook

Steve McQueen’s portrayal of real life western lawman Tom Horn is one of my favorite performances by the icon. I’ve always liked McQueen, but I felt he was always pigeonholed into the same character. Tom Horn is a different character for him. He’s a goofball. He’s unusual. I love that McQueen got a chance at this role before his tragic death. This was his second to last movie.

Unfortunately, the movie itself isn’t exactly top notch. Too much of it seems to exist simply to have McQueen go around with a shotgun and kill people. He gets hired by a ranch association to run rustlers out of a northern territory. He does so, and then the ranchers decide to get rid of him by framing him for a cruel murder.

When it comes to character and substance this movie is lacking in every way. Sometimes that can work with a western, but when you’re trying to tell the story of a real life hero of sorts, especially if you’re only telling the lesser-known parts, I think some sort of depth is required. McQueen does his best with the material to put together a three dimensional person, but there’s nothing there in the story. This could’ve made a good story if the writers and director were a little more focused on the motivations rather than just the violence alone.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Contagion / *** (PG-13)

Dennis French: Enrico Colantoni
Dr. Leonora Orantes: Marion Cotillard
Lyle Haggerty: Bryan Cranston
Mitch Emhoff: Matt Damon
Dr. Ally Hextall: Jennifer Ehle
Dr. Ellis Cheever: Lawrence Fishburne
Dr. Ian Sussman: Elliott Gould
Sun Feng: Chin Han
Roger: John Hawkes
Jory Emhoff: Anna Jacoby-Heron
Aubrey Cheever: Sanaa Latham
Alan Krumweide: Jude Law
Dr. David Eisenberg: Demetri Martin
Beth Emhoff: Gwyneth Paltrow
Dr. Erin Mears: Kate Winslet

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language).

To this date, the scariest book I’ve ever read is Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone”, a non-fiction thriller about the origins and incidents of the hemorrhagic fevers caused by the Ebola and Marburg filoviruses. I read it alone in my first apartment. I was single and was convinced that we were all going to die very soon. Obviously nature was very angry with us.

After a few months, I realized the incidences depicted in the book were isolated and measures were in place to help prevent a wide spread outbreak of such devastating diseases. Steven Soderbergh’s new film “Contagion” shows us those measures and all the problems we will face in implementing them in a way that won’t be misinterpreted as some form of restrictive oppression and conspiracy. Now, I am scared once again.

Following the hyperlink format that he used in his excellent film “Traffic”, Soderbergh gives us a large cast of characters that fill different roles in the progress and process of spreading, containing and controlling the outbreak. The cast of characters is spread across a wide range of international locations, though most of the procedural process is contained to the United States. Every time we meet a new character title cards cue us as to the character’s location and the population of that city. The large size of the Minneapolis population surprised me.

The virus enters the U.S. through a Minneapolis family. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Country Strong”) is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong with what appears to be a cold. She stops off in Chicago to visit her lover before returning to her family. She’s dead within 2 days. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon, “Invictus”), is hit with a triple whammy as his stepson exhibits symptoms as quickly as his wife did, and Mitch is placed into quarantine to prevent the spread of this mysterious super-virus.

Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne, “Mystic River”) heads the CDC team responsible for the identification, containment, and solution process of dealing with the virus. He sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, “Mildred Pierce”) to be his on site envoy at ground zero in Minneapolis, while Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, “Pride and Glory”) tries to reproduce the virus so a vaccine can be developed. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, “Inception”) as a liaison to Hong Kong to trace the origins of the virus.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant!”) takes a very clinical approach to these story elements. He concentrates on the CDC procedures and facts about identification and containment of such high impact diseases more so than on the emotional impact of what these characters are going through. The cinematography, by Soderbergh himself, is cold, filled with blue hues to enhance the clinical feel of the scientific approach. Film editor Stephen Mirrione never allows the picture to linger on the aftermath of any of the plot’s setbacks. This conforms to the clinical approach of the writing and direction and also suggests what these experts know about this situation—there is no time to mourn.

Events on a global scale such as this cannot unfold in a bubble, however, and the filmmakers don’t contain their study of this super virus to the scientific community. Soon the CDC feels the influence of the U.S. government as a military liaison (Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”) is sent to oversee their progress and toughen up the containment strategy. This is also a world where information—and more importantly misinformation—is at the public’s fingertips. Jude Law (“Sherlock Holmes”) is a conspiracy blogger who claims to function as a hard-nosed journalist. He spreads fear and doubts about the integrity of the information being fed to the public by the CDC about the outbreak.

“Contagion” lacks some power because of its clinical approach. Characters never get a good chance for development, so the audience can’t relate to some of their situations on an emotional level. I believe the subplot about the WHO liaison’s kidnapping is intended to evoke an emotional response about her kidnappers’ situation, but the movie doesn’t spend enough time on their story for their emotion or Dr. Orantes’ empathy to sink in. Matt Damon’s character is finally given an emotional outburst at the end of the film, and this works well to give the audience some closure on what we’ve just experienced.

Despite its lack of emotional power, “Contagion” is compelling and frightening enough on its procedural depiction alone. The filmmakers do a good job of covering more bases than you can anticipate in terms of the problems that will arise during an epidemic crisis such as the one portrayed here. There’s even a feel of the classic disaster picture to be found here. And, if there’s anything I can be sure of after seeing this movie, it’s that I am cancelling my plans to open a pig and bat farm.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Our Idiot Brother / **½ (R)

Ned: Paul Rudd
Miranda: Elizabeth Banks
Natalie: Zooey Deschanel
Liz: Emily Mortimer
Dylan: Steve Coogan
Jeremy: Adam Scott
Cindy: Rashida Jones
Janet: Kathryn Hahn
Billy: T.J. Miller
Ilene: Shirley Knight
Omar: Sterling Brown

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Jesse Peretz. Written by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for sexual content including nudity, and for language throughout).

It wouldn’t take anyone long to think of that particular family member that everyone rolls their eyes about when they’re mentioned in conversation. “What’s he done now?” is a question often asked about this person. People fear that he will show up at family gatherings. But, he’s family, so no one can say anything. “Our Idiot Brother” shows us such a family member and offers a little insight about how the family blemish is not always the only flaw to be found there.

This is a comedy about a stoner that approaches its comedy much like a stoner. It’s cool. You don’t have to laugh, man. Just chuckle if it feels right. It’s laid back and unconcerned about most of it developments until its climax, when it shows a little concern before sliding back into a mellow haze. This type of comedy has many appeals, but it won’t make your ribs hurt from laughter.

Paul Rudd (“How Do You Know”) is Ned, a free spirit who is clueless enough to be duped by a uniformed cop into selling him weed. The scene does a good job of showing just how Ned could think a fix might seem like a reasonable and honest request from a uniformed police officer. But Ned, his badge is right in front of your face. C’mon, man.

Ned is released on parole for good behavior, but his girlfriend who runs the organic farm he worked on has already moved on to a seemingly more clueless stoner. She kicks him out and keeps the dog. C’mon, man! He must have a place to live as part of his parole agreement, so he goes to his family for help.

Ned has three sisters, none of whom are stoners. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks, “The Next Three Days”) is the power player, a journalist looking for the story that will make her career. She abuses her neighbor, Jeremy (Adam Scott, “Piranha 3D”), who probably likes her to allow her to do so. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, “500 Days of Summer”) is another free spirit, but in the sexual sense. She has finally settled down with her girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones, “Parks & Recreation”). Liz (Emily Mortimer, “The Pink Panther”) is the stay at home mom. She’s married to a documentary filmmaker, Dylan (Steve Coogan, “The Other Guys”).

Ned makes his rounds living with each of his sisters and messing up their lives in various ways. He discovers that Liz’s husband is cheating on her. He destroys Miranda’s big break at her publishing firm. He’s reveals a secret to Cindy that threatens her relationship with Natalie. All the while he’s desperately trying to get his dog, Willie Nelson, back. He also mistakes his parole officer for a therapist, and turns his nephew on to violence, which ruins his chances of getting into a prestigious private elementary school.

The thing about Ned is that he is a screw up, but he always thinks the best of people. Nothing he does is malicious. He never realizes that he’s revealing something that he shouldn’t. Rudd plays this like a born stoner. It’s so easy to like Rudd, and he makes it so easy to like Ned. You don’t want Ned to mess things up, but you know he’s going to. Despite his clear lack of intelligence about etiquette and obviously inappropriate behavior, Ned rarely does anything very wrong. It’s really the others who are doing things they shouldn’t. Ned just has a gift for placing himself in the middle of his siblings’ conflict ridden lives.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Ned is rarely the family problem that he seems to be. It’s the family that have their issues and problems. Ned is merely the scapegoat because he makes himself an easy target. The screenplay by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz is very smart about how families work. The direction by Jesse Peretz (“The Ex”) focuses the blame as much on Ned’s sisters as it does on Ned’s stoned antics. The result is a somewhat unbalanced comedy that meanders between serious character study and silly slapstick.

In many ways, “Our Idiot Brother” is an admirable comedy for not presenting its titular idiot with typical idiotic material. It’s smart in its observations about siblings and the fact that we can’t hang all of our own stupid choices on one person. Moreover, we are usually more to blame for our own problems than any other individual. However, the movie never really dives into its comedic elements. It’s funny, but the comedy is on a very slow simmer that never jumps into the spotlight the way laughs usually do. “Our Idiot Brother” is an enjoyable comedy that may leave some wanting for more laughs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Sept. 9-15

Sports Night, Season 2 (1999-2000) ***½
Creator: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Joshua Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume

After seeing it’s final season, I’m even more disappointed that Aaron Sorkin’s first foray into television lived such a short life. Having come so close to cancelation after it’s first season, I believe the makers of this series decided to work even harder to make this the show they wanted it to be. It feels like everyone loosened their belts a bit in this second season and relaxed.

The inclusion of William H. Macy as a recurring cast member helps the atmosphere quite a bit in much the same way his character is supposed to boost the effectiveness of the show within the show. His personal relationship with real life wife Felicity Huffman probably made it easy for him to fit in with the cast. But, the show’s true strength lies within its regular cast members and strong writing mostly by the show’s creator, Sorkin himself.

Now, that Sorkin has won an Oscar for “The Social Network” and has another great buzz movie soon to be released with “Moneyball”, I’m hoping we’ll see another hit show created by him for television soon.

Everything Must Go (2011) ***
Director: Dan Rush
Writers: Dan Rush, Raymond Carver (short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Christopher C.J. Wallace, Rebecca Hall, Stephen Root, Michael Peña, Laura Dern

“Everything Must Go” is a very nice movie. ‘Nice’ isn’t a word us critics like to use much, because it’s fairly unimaginative; but ‘nice’ describes this movie well. It isn’t anything brilliant, but it’s good. It makes you feel good without being a “feel good movie.”

Based on a story by the great American realist Raymond Carver, “Everything Must Go” introduces us to an alcoholic played by Will Ferrell at just that point in his life when everything falls apart. He’s just fallen off the wagon, he’s been fired from his respectable job, and his wife has just left him. She didn’t just leave him. She moved all his things onto their front lawn, had all the locks on the house changed, blocked their bank accounts, and left him with no idea where she is. Ferrell decides to stay on his front lawn with his things.

He meets several people while camped out on his lawn that all help to change his perspective on his life. That’s not to say he has an overly dramatic Hollywood miracle shift in character. His change is subtle and leaves room for more growth.

This is a less severe alcoholic breakdown than Nicolas Cage’s in “Leaving Las Vegas”, but it’s not hard to imagine that Ferrell might not be too far from that. He’s also nowhere near that desperate, but he might think he is. It’s a very nuanced performance by Ferrell, an actor not really known for his nuance. It’s not an entirely dramatic piece. There are moments of levity. It ain’t “Anchorman” either. It’s nice.

Blitz (2011) **
Director: Elliott Lester
Writers: Nathan Parker, Ken Bruen (novel)
Starring: Jason Statham, Pappy Considine, Aiden Gillen, Zawe Ashton, David Morrisey, Luke Evans, Ned Dennehy, Mark Rylance

It’s not that there’s really anything wrong with the British cop flick “Blitz”, which as far as I could tell went straight to video in the States. It just all feels so played out already. I thought the fact that it was a British take on the cop chasing a serial killer thing would allow it to feel a little fresher. It does tend more toward British developments than American cop thrillers do, but it still feels something like an old sock.

Jason Statham is an action star who deserves a little more credit than he gets for his ability to carry a movie. Here he plays a hotshot cop who goes beyond the bounds of his job, ala Dirty Harry. A man known as “Blitz” is killing cops on the streets. It seems he has a connection to Statham’s character. Statham is stuck with another precinct’s detective to solve the crime. Played by another excellent British actor, Paddy Considine, the outsider detective is also despised in the department because he is openly gay. These characters work and are something less than standard, yet the plot never really takes off as something original.

Aiden Gillen is disturbingly cold-hearted as the blood thirsty Blitz, and there’s another interesting subplot with a young policewoman who is struggling with drug addiction after coming off an undercover assignment. Unfortunately, just as her story is taking off, she becomes one of Blitz’s targets.

It seems like this movie should’ve worked. Perhaps the energy level is a little low as the characters seem to swim in a depressed British landscape that has accepted its atmosphere of crime rather than fighting it. I really don’t know. It lacks oomph, when it should play more like a gritty “Lethal Weapon”.

Man on Wire (2008) ****
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Philippe Petit (book)
Starring: Philippe Petit, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman, Alan Weiner, Mark Lewis, Barry Greenhouse, Jim Moore

It isn’t every documentary that is a thrilling adventure. “Man on Wire” is like a heist flick about a team of criminals that broke into the World Trade Center in 1974 so that one man with an obsession could walk on a wire between the world’s two highest buildings. Consisting of interviews with all the original participants, vintage footage of the preparations, and reenacted scenes of the event, “Man on Wire” plays like one of the great capers.

Philippe Petit is the tightrope walker who performed the stunt and was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct. These charges were eventually dropped. It’s easy to see why with Petit’s winning personality, a real winning personality, as opposed to Charlie Sheen. He’s like a little boy in the way he describes the events, even acting some of them out, using a curtain as a prop.

The reenacted scenes blend perfectly with the wonderfully presented vintage footage. The reenactments add an incredible dramatic element to the story telling in much the same way the reenactments for the mountain climbing doc “Touching the Void” preserves the dramatic events told in that movie. The way the talking heads tell their story in the interviews makes you feel like a co-conspirator.

The movie won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009 and deserved it. Often, critics will distinguish a difference between documentaries and fictional films by only referring to documentaries as such, while other films are generally referred to as movies. I never separate documentaries from fictional movies. They are merely a different style of the same art form to me. A movie like “Man on Wire” makes it easy to see why I don’t think a distinction should be made between the two.

TrollHunter (2011) ****
Director/Writer: André Øvredal
Starring: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larson, Urmilla Berg-Domaas, Hans Morten Hansen

The Norwegian movie “TrollHunter” is a movie that takes advantage of everything that film technology allows an artist. Should it be a setback that it is used purely for the means of entertainment and not enlightenment? Considering how much joy watching this movie gave me, I think not.

“TrollHunter” exists on a silly premise that trolls are real and the Norwegian government spends a great deal of effort to keep their existence secret from the public. The movie is done in the currently popular genre style of “found footage.” It follows a student documentary film crew investigating strange bear attacks. They stumble upon a mysterious hunter and follow him into the woods one night only to discover that he is a troll hunter.

The trolls in the movie are wonderful towering CGI creations that blend seamlessly into the bleak wintery Norwegian landscape. The filmmakers spend a lot of time building the troll mythology in a way that preserves some of their typical nature, but allows them to seem more plausible in our reality. The troll hunter is a wonderful enigma who allows these student filmmakers a glimpse into this secret world just as the movie itself lets the audience glimpse it.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for this movie seems out of proportion to its subject matter, but I just love the imagination involved in making this movie. For some reason it’s spectacularly fantastic premise and expert execution make me think of Thomas Edison’s early movies. Edison marveled at the ability to capture images in motion and project them on screen. Most of his movies depicted images that are unimpressive by today’s standards, but at the time, they must have been awe-inspiring. That’s how I feel about “TrollHunter”.

Western of the Week

Meek’s Cutoff (2011) ****
Director/Writer: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux

“We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way.” — Meek.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is a thoughtful genre film that contemplates the way we practice modern politics with its depiction of a quite simple western story. I’m not sure if politics is really the intended subject of writer/director Kelly Reichardt, but it certainly fits with the themes of the movie.

The plot involves a group of settlers traveling west in 1845. They’ve hired a guide, a bushy teller of tall tales named Meek. He appears to have gotten them lost, but insists they aren’t. They are running out of water and soon they come across an Indian. Meek has already warned them with tales of the ruthlessness of the Indians in this territory and the group is unsure of how to deal with the man. Some, led by Meek’s provoking, think they should kill him and save themselves from the slaughter he will surely lead them to. The others think the Indian may be their only chance to find water, since he has traveled without gear and Meek continues to prove he can’t find water for them.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with modern politics? It’s simple. The group is in great need of leadership. What they have is a man who doesn’t appear to know anything he claims to. When presented with a problem that the people are unsure of how to deal with, their leader presents them with fear and aggression. This only sends the fractured factions of the group further apart. Instead of moving toward a goal, they argue and meander. Does any of that sound familiar?

At one point, a character says of Meek, “All I see is vanity.” Vanity is what drives many of the fear mongers we listen too these days. But beyond vanity, Reichardt doesn’t make any judgment as to who is right and who is wrong about the Indian. The open ending suggests that right and wrong is not the point, but rather it asks a question. Do we allow these fear mongers to impede our progress, or do we move forward by making up our own minds?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Apollo 18 / *** (PG-13)

Benjamin Anderson: Warren Christie
Nathan Walker: Lloyd Owen
John Grey: Ryan Robbins

Dimension Films presents a film directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego. Written by Brian Miller. Running time: 88 min. Rated PG-13 (for some disturbing sequences and language).

I’m not a space program encyclopedia or anything, but I’ve always found movies about NASA and the Cold War space race to be fascinating. The Apollo program is wonderfully chronicled in the HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon” and in the movie “Apollo 13”. The Gemini program before that is the subject of the excellent movie “The Right Stuff”. There is even a fascinating documentary on the subject called “In the Shadow of the Moon” that features interviews with most of the program’s astronauts. According to all of these movies, the Apollo program ended with the Apollo 17 mission. Now comes “Apollo 18” to finally explain why the space program was abandoned. You might believe that it was a matter of money or a lack of enthusiasm once man had finally landed on the moon. “Apollo 18” imagines a more disturbing reason.

Now, let me ease your concern by telling you that the events depicted in this movie are completely fictitious. The filmmakers would like you to believe that this is all real. I doubt they really expect people to believe what they see here, but they’ve made this movie as if it were compiled from “found footage.” This has been a popular trend in the horror genre since “The Blair Witch Project” became a surprise hit more than a decade ago. The footage, created as if it were filmed in the early 70s by the astronauts who performed this fictitious Apollo 18 mission, looks incredibly authentic.

According to the officious title cards at the beginning of the movie, after the Apollo 17 mission NASA contacted the crew of the cancelled Apollo 18 mission and told them that the mission was back on. The mission was now under the direction of the Department of Defense and was top secret. The astronauts were not even allowed to tell their families that their moon mission was back on.

The opening scenes establish the false reality of the footage by showing interviews with the astronauts where they express their joy that they will be going into space. We see them prepping for the mission with test runs and equipment checks. We see launch footage, and the scenes of their trip to the moon are filled with the astronaut antics we’ve seen on space missions throughout the history of the NASA program.

When they reach the moon, however, questions start to arise. Perhaps the astronauts should question more. Why are they setting up motion-activated cameras if they’re the only ones on the moon? The camera details, however, work well to sell the authenticity. The astronauts make a big deal out of the fact that all the cameras are furnished by Westinghouse, which they would have done at the time. The documentation of their mission gives the filmmakers good reason to tell their entire story through found footage, which works better for this style than it has in other recent entries, like “Cloverfield”.

Some viewers may not have the patience for this high concept set up. So much of the movie is structured to sell the concept that people may not be aware that they’re watching a horror movie until that final half hour of the film. With a running time of 88 minutes, it’s really not that long of a wait, though. I was wondering just who this movie is supposed to appeal to. It’s so steeped in the NASA space program protocols that it might turn off horror fans. On the other hand, the eventual turn of events toward horror might not appeal to true space junkies.

It worked on me, however. When events on the moon began to grow stranger, I found myself looking to the corners of the screen for some clue as to just what might really be happening on our ever-present satellite. The horror begins so subtly here that it draws you in, slowly pulling you to the edge of your seat. The filmmakers do not make the mistake of trying to explain the phenomenon that we’re seeing with a grand plan or even a true resolution to the problem these astronauts were sent to the moon to discover.

I have one small criticism. How exactly did they “find” this footage, considering how everything ends up? Well, I suppose a sequel or two were already written into NASA history. Apollo 18 wasn’t the only “canceled” mission. Perhaps Apollo 19 and Apollo 20 were eventually flown in order to find that footage.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark / **½ (R)

Sally: Bailee Madison
Kim: Katie Holmes
Alex: Guy Pearce
Harris: Jack Thompson
Mrs. Underhill: Julia Blake

FilmDistrict and Miramax present a film directed by Troy Nixey. Written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins. Based on the 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand. Running time: 99 min. Rated R (for violence and terror).

When you title a horror movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, aren’t you sending a mixed message? Of course, the filmmakers want you to be afraid of the dark, and they’re willing to take a swing at a childhood tradition to scare you in a way that makes you glad you never saw anything like this as a child.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is based on a made for television movie from 1974, but this version is dipped in the mind of Guillermo del Toro, the man behind such visionary horror fantasies as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Cronos”. It imagines the Tooth Fairy legend in a way that would make anyone hope never to be visited by such a monster. This isn’t the first time Del Toro has dabbled in the Tooth Fairy legend. He showed us some pretty frightening tooth fairies in the comic book movie “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”. In that movie, they were little flying things that were all teeth and could eat through a city block in a swarm. The Tooth Fairies in this movie are a little more sinister, but no less dangerous.

As with many horror movies, everything is centered on an old estate. We get a disturbing opening sequence that takes place long ago. We know this because the horse drawn carriage and costume clothing tells us so. We learn that the owner of the estate is giving teeth to something that lives in the furnace. They have his son, and he’ll stop at nothing to collect more teeth and get the boy back. Guess what? That doesn’t happen.

Skip to the present, when we meet Kim (Katie Holmes, “Batman Begins”) and Alex (Guy Pearse, “Memento”). They are refurbishing the old house, trying to make names for themselves in a respected architectural magazine. Alex has a daughter from a previous marriage, Sally (Bailee Madison, “Just Go With It”), who comes to live with them as they finish their project. As is always the case with horror movies, there is tension between Sally and the surrogate mother, Kim.

Eventually Sally, in her attempts to escape her fractured family situation, discovers the basement with the furnace. She hears voices calling her from the furnace. Soon we see something more disturbing coming out of the furnace trying to get to Sally in her room. They—yes, as in many—don’t like the light. Hence, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”.

What this movie has in spades is creepy atmosphere. From the ancient house, to the isolated garden, from the dark dreary basement, to the huge oak tree by the driveway, this is a classic haunted house. When I said the story was dipped in the mind of Del Toro, I meant down to the production design. Directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey, it’s obvious that Del Toro’s work was studied intently for this production. The garden is a great example, looking more like a set than a real garden; it’s like something out of a fairy tale rather than reality.

The tooth fairies themselves also look like typical Del Toro monsters. They’re small and quick. They’re realized as fully formed beings, with lungs and other anatomy beneath their skin. Despite the horror they bring, you can almost understand their function in the world. They’re also given a good backstory that Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins don’t oversell. They squeeze it in subtly and let the audience connect some of the dots.

What doesn’t work with the movie is also the screenwriting. By the end of the movie these tooth fairies are displaying control over their environment that suggests great intelligence and amazing strength in their numbers. Why, I must ask, did they not begin their campaign to capture Sally with such tactics? Had they used their cleverness and numbers early on, they would’ve never been suspected of even existing. They could’ve snatched her, and no one would know what had happened to her. Instead, we’re left with a wholly unsatisfying ending to a horror movie that had surprising promise.

I also disliked the tag on scene that closes the movie. We hear the fairies’ voices again, but there is another voice we recognize added to them. The inclusion of this other voice makes no sense to me. It’s disturbing, but I can’t come up with a good meaning for it. Perhaps, someone will explain it to me.

For some, the creepy atmosphere and measured direction of the material may be enough to make this horror flick worth watching. I can’t get past the lapse in logic presented by the monsters’ actions. It would’ve been so easy for them to achieve their goals had they attacked in full force from the very beginning. Of course, that would’ve made for a very short movie. I suppose sometimes we need to abandon reason and just focus on the fright of horror. 

Friday, September 09, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Sept. 2-8

The Beaver (2011) **
Director: Jodie Foster
Writer: Kyle Killen
Starring: Mel Gibson, Anton Yelchin, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence, Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones

On the DVD of “The Beaver” there is a public service message that runs before you get to the menu. It is a loud and overly busy animated music video that—while looking clever—completely runs over its own message that depression is a real disability and must be taken seriously. This misconceived message is a good indication of the movie itself.

The movie is a little clearer about the fact that the Mel Gibson character is depressed. He’s running out of options of how to deal with it. After his wife (Jodie Foster) kicks him out of the house, he finds a beaver puppet in a trash bin and prescribes the puppet to himself to act as a surrogate personality. The puppet is strong willed, but not quite abrasive, and speaks in a Cockney accent.

The movie plays under the guise of being a heartfelt, deeply moving portrayal of depression from Gibson; but it is actually a fantasy portrait of mental illness. It imagines that quirkiness and dramatic choices can lead to a cure. The Gibson character never really deals with his problems. He just finds a way around them. He says he’s still working on it at the end of the movie, but his turn around is like some sort of medical miracle.

The movie does make one observation about people that is real. We all have our obsessions to help keep us moving through life, whether we’re crazy or not. In the movie the dad is obsessed with the beaver. The wife is obsessed with the past. The elder son is obsessed with listing the similarities he shares with his dad. The younger son becomes obsessed with woodworking. The girl the elder son likes is obsessed with her dead brother, although she’s not really aware of this. She avoids this obsession by being obsessed with trying to be a perfect student.

I’ve observed obsessions like these in real life. I’m obsessed with movies, believe it or not. My wife is obsessed with adoption, thankfully or we probably wouldn’t have our daughter today. I have one boy who’s obsessed with video games and another who’s obsessed with stuffed animals. We all use these obsessions to give ourselves anchors in our lives. That’s what the characters in “The Beaver” do too. It’s about the only thing the movie has to say about coping mechanisms that’s right.

Arthur (2011) **
Director: Jason Winer
Writers: Peter Baynham, Steve Gordon (story)
Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Geraldine James, Luis Guzmán, Nick Nolte

I like Russell Brand. In fact I like everyone in a leading role in this movie. Did I telegraph my negative review with those two statements? Yes, despite the pleasure almost all of these actors bring to me, there remains the question, “Why remake ‘Arthur’?” After seeing the remake, it’s still a question without an answer. “Arthur” did not make some sort of social commentary that needs to be reiterated today. It is a character study.

The new “Arthur” tries to relate its story about an alcoholic millionaire who won’t grow up to the current financial crisis that our nation faces, but it’s a half-hearted effort because the story doesn’t really have much to do with the economy. The movie isn’t terrible to watch, but it’s much softer than the original. Instead of Dudley Moore’s falling down hysterical drunk, Russell Brand is pretty much Russell Brand. The drinking explains his eccentricities, but they really aren’t that much different than Brand’s typical screen personality quirks.

The new “Arthur” does correct a problem with the original, although the original was probably a little more realistic not to correct it. Instead of continuing function as a hero with a drinking problem, this time Arthur jumps on the wagon. Thirty years ago you could get away with keeping the romantic hero a drunk. Today, it’s just too much to ask an audience to forgive him such a character flaw.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2011) ***
Director: Craig McCall
Starring: Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker

Jack Cardiff was thought of as one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. For the casual movie viewer, this probably doesn’t mean much. For the film fanatic, a man like Cardiff was a sort of god. He was responsible for some of the most beautiful images ever placed on the screen. With a filmography including such titles as “The Red Shoes”, “Black Narcissus”, “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”, “The Vikings”, “Under Capricorn”, “The Black Rose” and “The African Queen”, it’s easy to see why he was so highly regarded by the film community.

Cardiff was one of the first cameramen to work with color photography in motion pictures. His best work shows a daring in its use of color. He was the first cinematographer at the top of most directors’ wish lists to shoot their movies. Mostly he was a man who loved movies and images. Even when shooting pop sequels in the 80’s, like “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Conan the Destroyer”, his passion for images was unmatched by any others in his trade. This was a man who shaped movies into an art form.

Back to School (1986) *½
Director: Alan Metter
Writers:  Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei, Harold Ramis, Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Fields, Dennis Snee
Starring: Rodney Dangefield, Sally Kellerman, Paxton Whitehead, Burt Young, Keith Gordon, Robert Downey Jr., Terry Farrell, M. Emmett Walsh, Adrianne Barbeau, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison

Did you know that Robert Downey Jr. is in this? He is. It’s one of those roles that you can imagine the actor looks back on and hangs his head in shame, but I don’t imagine that Downey does that. It was an early role. It meant work and pay. It meant that he could pay rent that month, or start a destructive addiction to a popular narcotic of the 80s. There are other people in this movie too, but none of that really matters any more. That’s what makes Downey a winner.

The Verdict (1982) ***½
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: David Mamet, Barry Reed (novel)
Starring: Paul Newman, Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason, Milo O’Shea, Lindsay Crouse

It’s hard to think of a better directing/screenwriting team than Lumet and Mamet. I have no idea how they got along, but it seems a natural pairing. Interestingly, with “The Verdict” they created one of the quietest and most contemplative legal procedurals ever to grace the screen. ‘Grace’ is the right word, too.

Paul Newman graces the screen with his presence in one of his many Oscar nominated performances. Newman is perhaps too graceful for the sad sack role he plays, a drunkard ambulance chaser who’s given a chance at redemption with a case that should be a walk in the park. Unfortunately for Newman’s character, the corporate legal team—led by acting great James Mason—is the definition of cutthroat intimidation tactics and legal manipulation.

It isn’t the perfect legal thriller that some have to think of it. It drags a little, there are some aspects of the case that get left untended, and the lead is given to star power ahead of appropriate casing. I don’t have a problem with Newman’s wonderful performance. However, if this were cast today, Tom Cruise would be the Newman equivalent, when someone like Richard Jenkins should really play the role. But those are minor quibbles when looking at the whole, a great movie that should hold a place among the classics.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011) **
Director/Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphiawonk, Geerasak Kulhong

The Palme d’Or winner from Cannes 2010 offers audiences a glimpse into a culture that doesn’t often find itself depicted on screen. The Thai picture shows us a world where people believe in ghosts as a fact, not some horror fantasy. Unfortunately, Uncle Boonmee and his ghosts are dull. But that doesn’t really give the full impact. This movie is dull. Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. It’s boring.

I don’t need to see Boonmee drain his abdominal fluids three times to understand that he’s sick. There are a couple of striking images to be found here and there, like in the cave sequence, but what’s the point of the cave sequence? To show Boonmee’s journey toward death? Huh! Really? It’s dull.