Friday, December 02, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 25-Dec.1

A Christmas Carol (2009) ****
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Charles Dickens (book)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Bob Hoskins

Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” is a brilliant realization of the classic Christmas tale by Charles Dickens. Having played Scrooge five times on stage, I’m a fairly discerning judge of the material. This is the truest screen adaptation I’ve seen.

From the advertising campaign that Disney used to sell the movie during its theatrical release in 2009, I expected it to little resemble the story I’ve come to know intimately. The ads made it look like the same roller coaster ride of a holiday movie that director Robert Zemeckis produced with the same motion capture technology in the disappointing “Polar Express”. On the contrary, the action sequences used to advertise the movie were hardly a reflection of the finished product.

Zemeckis not only captured the spirit of the original Dickens book, he retains the thoughtful period dialogue and speech. Many of the lines that are usually cut from theatrical productions of the story are retained in this movie, which allows many of Dickens’ more challenging ideas to be explored. Zemeckis even keeps Dickens’ criticism of the Church of England in the mix with his handling of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

I would imagine much of this movie would be quite frightening for younger viewers, as Zemeckis doesn’t shy away from the dark nature of Scrooge’s journey with the spirits. The images are striking, scary, and downright beautiful. This is one of the prettiest animated movies I’ve ever seen. The production design by Doug Chiang captures Dickensian England’s gorgeous architecture and the picturesque winter landscape of a world that alternates between the beauty of life and the grime and dirt of the evolving industrial society in its infancy. This is the way Dickens needs to be experienced.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984) **½
Director: Paul Mazursky
Writers: Paul Mazursky, Leon Capetanos
Starring: Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, Cleavant Derricks, Alejandro Rey, Saveli Kramarov, Elya Baskin

It’s not that “Moscow on the Hudson” isn’t a good film; it just doesn’t seem to have as much to say as it should. Mazursky, who forged his directing career out of human social observation, uses this story about a Russian defector as an analysis on the melting pot that is America, or more importantly New York. He doesn’t really seem to come to any profound conclusions beyond that initial notion of the melting pot of culture, however. There is scarcely a white person in the film that is not Russian, but the movie doesn’t really say much about all these different people from their different cultures other than they’re all here.

The screenplay puts a little more effort into finding the differences between the repressive culture of Russia and the freedom and illusions of America. It spends a good deal of time in Russia before going to America where the musician, played by comedian Robin Williams, will defect in Bloomingdale’s. The choice of Bloomingdale’s as the place of defection is certainly a comment on the consumer-based society of America, while the food and goods lines of Moscow are a commentary on the failure of communism.

Williams turns in one of his very subdued and effective dramatic performances that doesn’t even hint at the manic nature of his comedy. The supporting cast also does a good job with what they have to work with. I wonder how we could’ve let such a wonderful actress as Maria Conchita Alonso as Williams’s love interest disappear into obscurity. Perhaps she’s still working on a television show of which I’m not aware. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much of a dramatic place to go with their lives. Yes, they live normal lives, and Mazursky makes a point not to over dramatize them; but it leaves them all a little flat in the end.

Pearl Jam: Twenty (2011) ***
Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell

The fact that Pearl Jam has turned twenty is first and foremost a reminder that I’m getting old. They now get regular play on the classic rock stations. Didn’t the classic rock label exist long before they did? But considering the music landscape today and its utter lack of resemblance of what it was in 1991 when Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” was released, their endurance as a band is significant.

For long time fans of Pearl Jam, people who’ve just discovered them, and former fans that have lost touch with the band, “Pearl Jam Twenty” is an event by event account of the band’s history that will inform and demonstrate the band’s enduring magnetism. Director Cameron Crowe fills in a good deal of pre-band history about the Seattle music scene and the band that birthed Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone.

Anyone who is or was a fan of their music will find themselves swept back up in the thrill of the grunge revolution wave that changed the direction of the music industry at the time of Pearl Jam’s surprising rise. You’ll be singing along with the plethora of hit songs that Crowe uses liberally in the soundtrack and in live concert footage that populates most of the movie. Each member of the current line up of the band—amazingly only the drummer has changed over twenty years—and former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell provide the talking head recollections that drive this history lesson. Crowe keeps all of the interviews separate, which has the effect of making it seem as if Pearl Jam is a thing of the past. Perhaps it’s this separation of their relationships that has allowed these artists’ collaboration to endure throughout the years and perhaps for years to come.

Singles (1992) ***
Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon, Sheila Kelly, Jim-True Frost, Bill Pullman

All my life, waiting for somebody
Ah-ha-ha, come and take my hand
All my life, waiting for somebody
Ah-ha-ha, whoa, yeah

Down so long, doesn't really matter
This downtown home, been kicked and I've been spurred
You comin' along? It does't really matter
I'll go it alone--doesn't even hurt

I'm waitin' for the day, waitin' for the day that you come my way...

—Paul Westerberg, “Waiting for Somebody”, “Singles” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

Because you can’t walk away from this movie without this song stuck in your head.

Attack the Block (2011) ***
Director/Writer: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Luke Treadaway, Franz Dremeh, Leeon Jones, Jumayan Hunter, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao, Simon Howard, Danielle Vitalis, Paige Meade, Nick Frost

I’d actually like to give “Attack the Block” more than three stars. The only thing holding it back is a lack of ambition to be anything more than the story of surviving an alien invasion. That’s also probably one of the reasons it works so well. It’s simple. Alien creatures start falling from the sky near a London tenement building, known to its tenants as The Block. Many of its inhabitants are criminals, and they determine to beat the aliens.

The design of the alien creatures is fairly original. They look kind of like a cross between apes and dogs. They’re covered in black fur. How often do invading aliens have fur? They have no eyes and glowing teeth. It makes for quite a ferocious looking adversary. Another unique aspect is that they are just animals. They have no intentions of conquering the planet. They’re just following their nature.

The heroes of the film are almost animals too. Moses is the leader of a group of teenage punks who mug a woman on her way home. They don’t realize she’s a neighbor. Later, Moses claims that if they knew she was from the Block they would’ve left her be. She turns out to be a nurse and an ally once one of the boys is bitten by one of the alien beasts.

The movie doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. The characters are pure Londoners, with accents that might be a little thick for some American audiences. But you don’t need to understand their every word, because their tale is so simple. Writer/director Joe Cornish does a good job using the environment of the tenement building as an influential aspect on the events. The lights in the hallways automatically go off to save on energy and build suspense. The characters make the cinematic mistake of climbing the floors to escape, but this makes sense because the more impenetrable apartments are the penthouses. Mostly Cornish keeps the movie fun.

Western of the Week

Lonely are the Brave (1962) ***½
Director: David Miller
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Edward Abbey (novel “Brave Cowboy”)
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau, Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy

So, after watching this previously unknown to me modern western about a cowboy that comes crashing into modern society, I was compelled to look for its mention in the trivia section of IMDb’s entry for “First Blood”. The similarities between the movies are uncanny. A loner, outcast from a by gone era (in this one the old west, in “First Blood” the Vietnam War) wanders into town, is arrested, is beaten in custody, escapes, and is hunted in a mountainous wilderness landscape. There’s even a scene in each movie where the hero takes out a helicopter trying to spot him for officers on the ground.

There is no mention of “Lonely are the Brave” in the trivia section of “First Blood”; but it does reveal that the star of “Lonely”, Kirk Douglas, was originally cast to play Colonel Truatman, Rambo’s superior officer. Douglas dropped out of the production over a dispute about the script. He wanted Rambo to die at the end, as he did in the novel. Perhaps Douglas was still trying to find the ending to his old movie “Lonely are the Brave”.

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