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.

No comments: