Friday, December 09, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 2-8

African Cats (2011) ***
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey
Writers: Keith Scholey, John Truby
Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

As a child, I loved watching nature documentaries. I’m not sure which I anticipated more on Saturday mornings, the cartoons or Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”. Disney produced some of the best classic nature docs, like “The Vanishing Prairie”. A few years ago, Disney rebooted their nature documentary series under the banner Disneynature. I’ve been meaning to get my kids into this series for a while. With their most recent release “African Cats”, I finally did.

The movie tells the story of two cat families in the plains of Africa. One is a lion pride that is threatened by another pride of lions. The other is a Cheetah mother trying to protect her cubs until they’re old enough to survive on their own. Samuel L. Jackson narrates it, and I kept expecting him to tell my kids to “go the f@#$ to sleep.” The narration tries a little too hard to make a storyline personalizing the cats for the audience.

The doc contains all the typical moments of killing to survive, which my wife had some problems with. The boys didn’t enjoy the film as much as I expected. I think their problem with it was similar to my wife’s. It was too depressing. The lives of these cats are depicted a very difficult. I think they wanted it to be all fun and happy. I don’t remember having the adverse reaction to the reality of nature my boys had. Are they too sensitive? Did I do something wrong? I think they really enjoyed it; they just didn’t like what it had to say.

Cold Weather (2011) ***
Director: Aaron Katz
Writers: Aaron Katz, Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler
Starring: Chris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raúl Castillo, Robyn Rikoon

“Cold Weather” is a quiet, quirky independent noir. It follows a forensic science drop out who just seems to want to hang out in his hometown of Portland, OR. It does look very cold there. You don’t want to rent this one if you’re looking for action. The pace is mystifyingly slow. I won’t go so far as to say too slow, however, because I was still interested.

Our maybe Sherlock Holmes wanna be eventually finds something to do in the form of a mystery. An ex-girlfriend turns up missing. Not for very long though. Long enough for our hero to dig up enough dirt on her activities to continue his investigation even after he finds her. Or rather she finds him to tell him to stop following her.

Anyway, it’s a more interesting plot than it appears at first and I felt the ending was just perfect. Many will complain about it because so much is left unresolved, but a solution was never the point. What do you think all the waiting around doing nothing was about?

Lethal Weapon (1987) ****
Director: Richard Donner
Writer: Shane Black
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe

When you lose your love
And it makes your life turn cold
When it tears you apart
Your heart and soul just can't go on
When love's alive, it sets you free
When it's gone, it's plain to see
How even love can become a lethal weapon

When you lose control
And you scare yourself sometimes
When you really don't care, yeah
That your life is on the line
No one outside can understand
You take your life in your own hands
And even love can become a lethal weapon

Killing you, that's the last thing love
Was ever meant to do
Become a lethal weapon

You know there is no hope of breaking free
And what you suffer happily
That's when love itself becomes
A lethal weapon

—“Lethal Weapon” by Honeymoon Suite.

Perhaps the worst theme song ever written.

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2010) **
Director: Jean-François Richet
Writers: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, Gérard Lanvin, Olivier Gourmet, Georges Wilson

During most of this second film about notorious French bank robber Jacques Mesrine, I had to wonder just why they bothered to tell his story in two movies. Too much of the first hour and fifteen minutes of this movie is spent showing similar events in this criminal’s life. The first movie, “Killer Instinct” suffered from this one’s lack of insight into what made this man tick, but it was fascinating to learn of his audacity in the face of no hope of escape. In this one its just, “oh yeah, I’ve heard this one before.”

I’m not sure I could’ve taken another bank robbery or prison break where the driver made a minor mistake that caused them to get into yet another accident that they somehow manage to escape either on foot or with the car limping off into the woods somewhere. Jean-François Richet (“Assault on Precinct 13”) directs these action sequences with great expertise, but it feels like someone set them on a ten-minute repeat cycle.

Then, just when it seems this is the structure of the film until the end, the tone of the film changes drastically. Suddenly, the story shifts to how Mesrine tries to justify his actions with a revolutionary ideology. He’s not convincing, and maybe that’s intended, but the movie never really makes that clear. Considering the epic nature with which Richet approached this ambitious portrait, it’s disappointing that he couldn’t come up with a stronger statement on Mesrine.

Die Hard (1988) ****
Director: John McTiernan
Writers: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza, Roderick Thorp (novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Alexander Godunov, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, De’voreaux White, Clarence Gilyard Jr., Robert Davi, Grant L. Bush

Why wouldn’t the building security guard just tell McClane to begin with that the only people left in the building were on the 30th floor at the Christmas party?

Look forward to more observations on a movie I’ve seen far too many times during future holiday seasons. 

The Tempest (2010) **½
Director: Julie Taymor
Writers: Julie Taymor, William Shakespeare (play)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, Ben Winshaw, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina

Julie Taymor’s vision is exactly what Shakespeare needs to connect with a cinematic audience. What she lacks is an ear for his language. “The Tempest” is one of the most visually stunning Shakespeare film adaptations to date, and with good reason since it deals with the mystic arts of it hero Prospero. The character has been transformed here, rather painlessly in regards to Shakespeare’s text, to a woman in the form of the unsinkable Helen Mirren. Mirren understands the importance of Shakespeare’s language, if Taymor doesn’t. Her soliloquies provide the best moments of the story.

The other cast members don’t come out so unscathed. Taymor seems to identify with the freakish comic relief provided by the characters of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano, played strongly by Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, and Alfred Molina respectively. They do cause a few awkward cinematic moments visually, but I appreciate the kind of visual experimentation Taymor tries with them and the spritely character of Ariel here. It is with the “normal” human characters and the main dramatic storyline that “The Tempest” falls on its face.

Between nearly incomprehensible dialogue (a poor sound mix), I believe edited dialogue from the original text, and the utter whininess of the characters, there is no power to the deceit these people are willing to inflict on each other. It feels as if they’re playing at the same childish games as Stephano and Trinculo, who are supposed to act as counterpoint to the drama of the main story. The leads are childish, but there are real stakes involved in their treachery. You wouldn’t know that by the way Taymor handles the material. And, the romantic leads are like that cute couple in high school that everyone says they admire but really get on everyone’s nerves with all their cutie pie talk. In truth, that’s how Shakespeare wrote them. He was much better at political intrigue than he was at romance.

Western of the Week

Reel Injun (2010) ***½
Director: Neil Diamond
Writers: Catherina Bainbridge, Neil Diamond, Jeremiah Hayes
Starring: R. Michael David, Adam Beach, Clint Eastwood, Chris Ayres, Charlie Hill, Jim Jarmusch, Sacheen Littlefeather, Russell Means, Ron Rondeaux, John Trudell, Jesse Wente

“Reel Injun” is a surprisingly enlightening documentary about the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and about the real modern history of the American Indian. The movie is so convicted in its subject matter that it feels wrong to use the terms “native American” or “Indian” to describe its subjects, as they are terms placed on this land’s long term human inhabitants by the white man. As the famous activist John Trudell puts it in this movie, “those (words) are sounds that were never uttered before the white man, and we were here for a long time before they showed up.”

Famous humans from this country’s native nations—comedians, actors, directors, activists, film critics, stunt men and poets—and a few white filmmakers, populate the movie. They give insight into how Hollywood shaped not only the nations, but also Indians’ perception of Indians. Clint Eastwood talks about how the script for “The Outlaw Josey Wales” saw Indians in terms of their humanity, rather than their stereotypical nobility. The documentary filmmakers take us to several different Indian nations today. I found the Crow to be one of the more fascinating in the way they had embraced some of the positive stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood.

The activists Trudell and Russell Means, however, bring the real power to the material in the way they clarify many of the injustices against the Indian nations and how Hollywood portrayals shaped and cemented many of these unfortunate misconceptions. The film is also a great source of reference for film. Even many of the films that were responsible for misconceptions about Indians make useful reference material, and this film is invaluable in how it points out the recent renaissance in native filmmaking. It cites one of my favorite movies of recent years, “The Fast Runner”—and one I forgot to place on my Top 25 of the Oughts list a couple of years ago—as the best Native American movie ever made. It may be one of the best movies of any kind ever made. 

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