Friday, December 16, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 9-15

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) ***½
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog, Judith Thurman (article)
Starring: Werner Herzog (also narrator), Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michael Geneste 

Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” unearths the earliest cave drawings ever discovered. For the documentary, Herzog was granted exclusive access to the Chauvet caves in Southern France, where recently the oldest cave drawings on record were discovered in pristine condition, preserved by the rock as if they were drawn yesterday.

The discovery in itself is amazing and makes for fascinating subject matter. The doc doesn’t feel quite like a typical Herzog film. It doesn’t have the central dissection of character that Herzog is so skilled at as a filmmaker. Instead it mostly regards the drawings. There are a few talking heads explaining the history of the discovery and of other artifacts found from the same time period, but Herzog isn’t interested in the modern human subjects.

Without the people who actually created the drawings to scrutinize, Herzog is content with simply observing the drawings themselves. Much of the movie is spent in silence, with the camera simply photographing the drawings. It was released in theaters in 3D, which seems an odd format for Herzog and documentaries in general. I would’ve liked to see it in 3D, however, for that sense of actually observing the drawings in person.

This is a simpler film than Herzog usually makes. What Herzog is best at, however, is observation. Here, instead of observing a man and his weaknesses, Herzog observes one of man’s greatest strengths—his ability to communicate, even over centuries.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) ***
Director: Jim Henson
Writers: Jerry Juhl, Lillian Hoban (book), Russell Hoban (book)
Starring: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson

I remember anticipating watching “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” when I was a kid. I’d watched “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” with great glee for Jim Henson’s creations, and the prospect of a Christmas special with Muppets was quite thrilling. I knew it wasn’t starring the regular Muppet crew, so I was quite surprised to see Kermit riding a bike in the opening moments. I also remember that the band Foreigner was popular at the time. For some reason, the Nightmare reminded me of Foreigner. I now realize the Riverbottom boys are much more talented. My older brother was also dreaming of rock ‘n roll stardom at the time, so the story of Emmet’s dream of owning a guitar and the whole notion of the Nightmare band just struck a chord in the Wells household.

Looking back, I’m surprised at how much of a musical the holiday special was. There are more songs than dialogue in the show. It’s also kind of fun to see how poorly the filmmakers were able to cover the wires and puppetry involved in making the movie. Does it spoil the illusion? Hardly. It reminds us of simpler times, times when it was ok to see the seams in our entertainment. Those gaffes aren’t what we take away from the experience anyway. Although, it’s awfully hard to block out how goofy those woodland creatures look when they walk, with the knees flying out in front of them and their feet never touching the ground.

The Change-Up (2011) **½
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Joe Lucas, Scott Moore
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin

The new body-switching movie “The Change-Up” wasn’t half as bad as I expected it to be. The absurdity of this ages old premise is always a tough one to get around. I think “The Parent Trap” is the only one that does it in an acceptable way by having the change-up be physically possibly since the two switching roles are actually twins. Sure it’s the parents that are worked on in that one and not the switchees, but at least its plausible.

This one really takes the cake though by having polar opposites Jason Bateman (the family man) and Ryan Reynolds (the single party guy) switch by peeing in a fountain together. Uh-huh. But anyway, despite the film’s blatant attempts at making all facets of adult life and marriage vulgar, it’s actually pretty thoughtful about its protagonists and their dilemmas in their everyday ruts. The movie gets a lot of details about marriage and parenthood correct, although the baby poop in the mouth is a little much. A fountain of pee getting in there? Sure, that can happen; but the poop is just gross for grossness sake.

The story is perhaps a little too drawn out. You expect a comedy like this to run about 90 minutes or so. This one runs close to two hours and the extra thirty minutes can be felt. But, if you’re looking for some mindless fun and a few pretty good laughs, you could do a lot worse than having them delivered by Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds. And on the female side, there’s also Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde. Not too shabby.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) ****
Director: John Huston
Writers: Nunnally Johnson, John Steinbeck (novel)
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills

“I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.”
                                                                                                —Tom Joad

Seeing this movie and “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” in the same week has me worried for our country. Both seem to be born out of the depression, although the Muppets special was from a children’s book published in the early seventies. Both are about impoverished American families (I assume the Otters are American). Both strike remarkably close to home in our current economic climate.

Both of these movies made me think about GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich’s comments about how the poor need to learn about work ethic. I’m sure there are some poor people who do need an injection of work ethic, but both of these movies depict a poor class that works very hard for what little they have, and they’re thankful for what they get. Perhaps that’s what this country needs more of today. I rarely get the impression that the rich are thankful for what they get. Too often I hear people who are more well to do than others complaining about their situation. We’ve become soft all right, but it ain’t the poor that got us there.

The Future (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Miranda July
Starring: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky

“The Future” is a quirky little dark comedy about a stray cat that gets rescued, taken to the vet and dies waiting for the people to pick her back up again, and it involves time travel. OK, none of what I just wrote is true, but it sort of is. That’s the great thing about “The Future”; it has such a free spirit. Perhaps too much free spirit in the film’s protagonist played by the movie’s writer and director Miranda July.

July’s original debut “Me You and Everyone We Know” was a sensation, but it’s almost upstaged by her follow up, which is more intimate and inventive. It follows a couple older than they look or feel. They perhaps suffer from what many Gen-Xer’s do as we reach our 40s; we still think we’re 20. One day their reality comes crashing down on them, and they realize they’re unobtrusive existence of going to jobs they never wanted and surfing the internet as they sit next to each other in their apartment doesn’t exactly match the dreams they once had. They decide to make drastic changes, which will have much different effects on their lives than they imagined. The good news is that the man can stop time by will. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really know how to or even if he wants it to start it back up again once he realizes how things have changed between he and his wife.

Throughout all of this that cat is waiting for them to come pick her up from the vet’s office. The cat will most likely die within six months anyway, but her life of being a cat has become a life about waiting. There are some deep messages here about how we wait for our life to become what we think it will be rather than shaping the lives we want. What’s so charming about this movie though is how July doesn’t really push that message on its story. It evolves naturally from it, much like our lives evolve naturally from our actions

Western of the Week

Dead Man (1995) ***
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henricksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Mili Avital, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Jarred Harris, Alfred Molina

I saw “Dead Man” in 1995 and was less than impressed by it. Last week, I watched the movie “Reel Injun”, about the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood. Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch contributed many of his observations about Hollywood Indians to the documentary and that inspired me to give this movie a second look. Gary Farmer certainly provides a non-traditional Hollywood depiction of an Indian portrayal with his outcast Nobody. He’s fat. He doesn’t understand everything about his world. He doesn’t know how to fight. He exists as much by luck as he does by his “noble” wisdom. It’s just as untraditional as Johnny Depp’s accountant hero is to the western genre.

I remain unsure as to just what Jarmusch is trying to accomplish in this film beyond the deconstruction of the Western myth as defined by Hollywood. Certainly that’s enough of a goal, but he’s also trying to tell the story of this man played by Depp and his journey toward death. That’s the part I’m not sure about, but I was more entertained by it this time around. The opening train sequence has a sort of brilliance in the way it shows us how a western journey at that time was much more of a bother than it’s often depicted on film. In just a few shot compositions and a fairly short amount of screen time, he’s able to express how endless such a journey must have felt. Perhaps that’s part of what he’s saying about our journey toward death.

Beginners (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Mary Page Keller, Cosmo

Mike Mills’s “Beginners” is a romance realized through the necessity to fight the insecurities we work our whole lives to build. When you can write a sentence like that about a film, it’s a pretty good bet its worth the watch. “Beginners”, however, goes beyond just its message and tells its story in an interesting way.

First, its narrative is broken up, out of chronological order. It tells the story of an unhappy man, played by Ewan McGregor. His father has just passed away. His mother had passed four years earlier. He’s in that difficult period where he has to pick up his pieces and finding he’s the only one left to do it. His friends try to be helpful, but can’t break through his malaise.

Part of his problem is that in his father’s final years, his entire perception of what his life had been was turned on its head by his dad’s revelation that he was gay and had been his entire married life. He never cheated on his wife, but the distance between them defined much of their boy’s life. Without falling back into a full synopsis, I’ll just say that McGregor’s direction changes when he meets a girl who makes him feel the type of love his parents never shared.

From there we discover a unique romance that isn’t as happy as we expect our romances to be, but much more fulfilling. Mills uses unusual editing techniques to express McGregor’s inner emotions. There are graphics that depict the size of his father’s tumor. He adopts his father’s Jack Russell, and theirs is one of the most unique owner/pet relationships I’ve seen. He talks to the dog, who answers back in subtitles. Most emotionally effective, however, is the way in which his story is edited. Mills has a knack for revealing facts to the audience at just the right time, right when it will shuffle the puzzle of McGregor’s emotions around in just the right way to have maximum impact.

I may have made all this sound too technical, and too sad. It isn’t. “Beginners” is a sweet story that is in touch with the way we live our lives. It handles cancer in a way that survivors will understand and relate to. It understands love equally as well. It’s a complete movie, with heart, mind and soul.

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