Friday, November 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 18-24

Terri (2011) ***½
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writers: Patrick Dewitt, Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia

Why does it take an independent film to see high school as it really is? “Terri” tells the story of an over weight high school boy, and his search to find a way to fit in. Although he’s large, it isn’t about his size. Much is made about his man boobs, as would be the case with the sensitivity levels of most high school environments, but Terri’s problems fitting in root down further than just his weight.

An actor who is new to me plays Terri. Jacob Wysocki is the definition of a natural actor. Nothing he does seems affected in the slightest. Rarely do you find a new actor, or an overweight actor even, that feels so natural on screen. There is no sense of self-consciousness from Wysocki, which make his one of the most affecting performances of the year.

Terri is befriended by his high school principal, played by John C. Reilly, who I can imagine playing a role like Terri when he was that age. Reilly seems to have a pattern of picking out the strange kids of the school and befriending them. At first, there’s the suspicion of an ulterior motive, but it soon becomes clear that Reilly’s character is just as genuine as Terri.

The movie isn’t really about their relationship as much as it is about being a high school kid. There’s a great deal here involving experimentation with drugs and sex. These “freaks” are only trying to have the same high school experience as their piers. Like their piers, they often find these are experiences they are not quite emotionally mature enough to handle. “Terri” acts as a clear window to show us that even those kids who are different aren’t so different from the rest of us.

To Be or Not To Be (1983) **
Director: Alan Johnson
Writers: Thomas Meehan, Ronny Graham, Melchoir Lengyel (story), Ernst Lubitsch (story), Edwin Justus Mayer (1942 screenplay)
Starring: Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Jose Ferrer, Christopher Lloyd, James Haake, George Wyner, George Gaynes, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jack Riley

A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 movie “To Be or Not To Be”, about a polish acting troupe that escapes Warsaw during the German invasion, could’ve been a worthwhile endeavor. I don’t know why someone decided to make it into a Mel Brooks spoof. I’m sure the original, unseen by me, spoke to Brooks in a very personal way. But, the typical spoof delivery of lines and comedic material has an insincerity that works against the serious foundations of the World War II setting.

Brooks casts not only his wife but also a good deal of his frequent company of players in the movie; further emphasizing it’s slapstick delivery. Now, it is a talented cast, but they all seem to be operating in Brooks spoof mode, rather than a more straightforward comedic mode that relies on the material more so than a slapstick delivery. Only the great Jose Ferrer seems to be playing the material straight.

This seems like a missed opportunity by Brooks to make a movie with a subject matter that meant something to him and other Jewish performers, and bring the spotlight back to a forgotten classic of cinema. It seems like the ingredients for a good dramedy were in place, it’s too bad the people making it didn’t seem to know that.

Jane Eyre (2011) ***½
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writers: Moira Buffini, Charlotte Brontë (novel)
Starring: Mia Masikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins

Oh, those wacky Brontë sisters. They truly were the gross out comediennes of the English romance set. Their outrageous characters always threw such parties of debauchery and chased those husky huntsmen around the tropical English countryside when all the while it was the nerdy kid they got stuck getting a ride from they should’ve been after the whole time. Of course, they always eventually came around and made the dreams of all nerds come true by whisking away into the sunset with the brainy one. Such good times with these girls, wasn’t it?

Western of the Week

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) **
Director: Burt Kennedy
Writer: James Edward Grant
Starring: James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Joan Blondell, Marie Windsor, John Dehner, Henry Jones, Dub Taylor, Kethleen Freeman

I suppose “Support Your Local Gunfighter” is exactly what it is supposed to be, a comedic western starring James Garner. The filmmakers even reunited most of the cast from the earlier, and better, “Support Your Local Sherriff”. This isn’t a sequel to that, but it sort of succeeds as one. Although Garner is playing a different character in theory, it’s really the same character that everyone wanted to see Garner playing since he found his original television success as “Maverick”.

“Gunfighter” is really just a little too goofy to work. It plays like slapstick, which was fine for the early 70s I suppose, but just doesn’t mesh well with what the west has become in most filmgoer’s minds. The film is populated by a plethora of fun characters, most notably Jack Elam playing Garner’s clueless cohort and Suzanne Pleshette as the plucky love interest. It moves at a snappy pace. It involves a con man who wants to get in and out of town as fast as possible, but can’t help getting caught up in a mining feud for money when he can’t keep himself away from the roulette wheel. When it comes down to it, this movie really isn’t very funny. It’s fun, but not funny.

Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas (2011) **½
Director: Karen Disher
Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah, Dennis Leary, Ciara Bravo, T.J. Miller, Josh Peck, Seann William Scott, Chris Wedge, Billy Gardell, Judah Friedlander

Of all the new Christmas specials to come out over the past few years, “Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas” seems to accomplish the least. That is to say it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It places characters from a popular film franchise into a holiday plot that finds them possibly ruining Christmas and then they fix it. It accomplishes this with about the same efficiency as this description.

Luckily, there’s always Scrat and his acorns. This Christmas special give us a couple of little Scrat moments that, as usual, have nothing to do with the main storyline. There are a few good laughs from the main story as well. A few involve Christmas traditions that are invented by Manny the Mammoth as a way to keep his daughter Peaches in line, a few more by Sid the Sloth, who just invents them for the hell of it. What a surprise for them to find that Santa is just getting his workshop started and could use a little help setting up some of those traditions. Forget that Christmas is centered on the birth of Christ, which had yet to happen.

Comedian T.J. Miller voices the reindeer Prancer and was probably the most interesting element of the special. I wish the story had been more centered on his character, who claims Prancer to be a family name and not feminine at all.

Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (2010) ***
Directors: Andrew Beall, Frank Molieri
Writers: Craig Schulz, Stephan Pastis, Charles M. Schulz (characters)
Starring: Trenton Rogers, Shane Baumel, Blesst Bowden, Ciara Bravo, Austin Lux, Amanda Pace, Andy Pessoa, Grace Rolek  

Although “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown” is a new addition to the cannon of classic cartoons, it does a good job of capturing the Peanuts gang spirit. Compiled from several of the actual comic strip bits about Linus and his blanket—at least I’m pretty sure it was compiled from earlier work, because I recognized several of the bits—the movie is really a series of vignettes that tell an overall story about Linus trying to give up his precious blanket. Huh! “Precious.” That makes me wonder if Charles Schulz was a big fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books. There are certainly similarities between Gollum and Linus.

The movie is cute and simple in that intelligent way that makes the Peanuts characters so appealing and so enduring. Unlike most of today’s family fare, the movie never pushes for laughs or rushes through the actions and thoughts of the characters. These are smart children that are still most certainly children. Most of the Peanuts primaries are featured here—Snoopy, Chuck, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, and Pig Pen. They make their typically pointed observations about each other and what it’s like to think like a kid.

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