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?

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