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.

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