Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Hackers (1995) *

PG-13, 107 min.
Director: Iain Softley
Writer: Rafael Moreu
Starring: Johnny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens, Jesse Bradford, Matthew Lillard, Laurence Mason, Renoly Santiago, Lorraine Bracco, Wendell Pierce, Alberta Watson, Penn Jillette, Marc Anthony, Michael Gaston

Cyberpunk cool.
Skateboards as dramatic tools of transportation.
Rollerblading indoors, oh my!
Body armor as disenfranchised fashion statement.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—A Wedding (1978) ***

PG, 125 min.
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Robert Altman, John Considine, Patricia Resnick, Allan Nichols
Starring: Carol Burnett, Paul Dooley, Amy Stryker, Mia Farrow, Dennis Christopher, Gerald Busby, Peggy Ann Garner, Mark R. Deming, Mary Seibel, Margaret Ladd, Leslie Rogers, Timothy Thomerson, Marta Heflin, Lillian Gish, Nina Van Pallandt, Vittorio Gassman, Desi Arnaz Jr., Belita Moreno, Dina Merrill, Pat McCormick, Virginia Vestoff, Howard Duff, Ruth Nelson, Ann Ryerson, Craig Richard Nelson, John Cromwell, Luigi Prioetti, Geraldine Chaplin, John Considine, Lauren Hutton, Beverly Ross, Patricia Resnick, Margery Bond, Cedric Scott, Pam Dawber, Gavan O’Herlihy

“A Wedding” is just about the perfect Robert Altman subject. No other event lends itself so well to his writing and directing styles. From the ritual of the religious ceremony to the crowds of guest who all have their separate agendas, Altman couldn’t have picked a better setting for his 1978 film.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Oceans (2010) ***½

G, 104 min.
Directors: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud
Writers: Christophe Cheysson, Jacques Cluzaud, Laurent Debas, Stéphane Durand, Laurent Gaudé, Jacques Perrin, François Sarano
Narrator: Pierce Brosnan

Part of the DisneyNature documentary series, “Oceans” is a beautiful imagescape of the wonders of the ocean. Unlike “African Cats”, the narration provided in the English version by Pierce Brosnan does not single out a few animals and tell an imposed story over the footage. Instead, “Oceans” is a broad overview of all life found in our world’s oceans. We see a great many creatures and a great many sights, but there are no in depth studies of any one aspect.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) **½

R, 95 min.
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead

Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” is a series of vignettes of famous people playing versions of themselves talking with each other about coffee and cigarettes and various other things. The vignettes are interesting, and the whole project could make for an interesting web series, but as a feature film it smells more of gimmick than artistic expression.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Act of Valor / **½ (R)

U.S. Navy SEAL Team 7: Bandito Platoon
Shabal: Jason Cottle
Cristo: Alex Veadov
Jackie Engle: Alisa Marshall

Relativity Media presents a film directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for strong violence including some torture, and for language).

My father was a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot. He passed away last year after a brief battle with cancer that ravaged his body quickly. When he got sick, he kept a positive outlook. He never complained about what was happening to him. When it got to the point that he realized he wasn’t going to pull through, he accepted it and expected everyone else to do the same. He faced his death as his military training had prepared him, with dignity and as an uncompromising fact of life. He had served his time and served it well. He died like the Marine he was.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Stone (2010) **

R, 105 min.
Director: John Curran
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy

Edward Norton has this incredible ability to make just about any choice believable. He’ll take a convict character, like the one in the movie “Stone”, and he can turn him into a hood. You don’t question Norton talking in Ebonics. Then he turns around and transforms the same character into someone who has found enlightenment. His transformation is seamless. The Ebonics disappear and there is no doubt that this character could to this.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Anonymous (2011) ***½

PG-13, 130 min.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Paolo de Vita, Trystan Gravelle 

The plays of William Shakespeare are the most reproduced plays in cinema. They don’t do great box office, but they are a fascination for the people who make movies. Even fictions based on the life of Shakespeare tend to bring passionate filmmaking about.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Chuck (series 2007-2012) ***½

NR, 91 43-min. episodes
Creators: Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak
Starring: Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, Joshua Gomez, Vik Sahay, Scott Krinsky, Sarah Lancaster, Ryan McPartlin, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Bonita Friedericy, Julia Ling, Mekenna Melvin, Tony Hale, Brandon Routh, Linda Hamilton, Scott Bakula, Timothy Dalton, Carrie-Anne Moss

There are some television shows that become like family. You miss them when you’re not watching them. You feel like you know the characters the way you know the person next to you. NBC’s action/comedy spy series “Chuck” was one of those shows for my wife and I.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Artist / **** (PG-13)

George Valentin: Jean Dujardin
Peppy Miller: Bérénice Bejo
Al Zimmer: John Goodman
Clifton: James Cromwell
Doris: Penelope Ann Miller
Constance: Missi Pyle
The Dog: Uggie

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture).

Here it is 2012. Cinema is well into its second century as an art form. Filmmakers today can put anything that comes into their imagination on screen. And yet, the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar this year is a black & white, (mostly) silent movie about the silent movie era in Hollywood. How can this be? Frankly, it’s possible because Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is incredibly well-made, entertaining, heart warming, and even profound.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Last Train Home (2009) ***½

NR, 85 min.
Director: Lixin Fan
Starring: Changhua Zhan, Suqin Chen, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang, Tingsui Tang

A little more than a year ago, I traveled to Changsha, Hunan and Guangzhou, Guangdong in China to adopt my daughter. This was just before the Chinese New Year. We heard a great deal about the worker migration from Guangzhou to their homes for the holiday break. Before seeing the movie “Last Train Home”, I never could’ve imagined the phenomenon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Real Steel (2011) **½

PG-13, 127 min.
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven, Richard Matheson (short story “Steel”)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda

I’d heard a lot of good things about “Real Steel”. People called it a good classic sports movie, but with robots. It drew a lot of comparisons to “Rocky”, which make a lot of sense considering the film’s conclusion and subject matter. It’s a good family film, despite a PG-13 rating, which is becoming a nearly meaningless film rating. The PG-13 can be anything from a family friendly superhero flick to a depraved sex comedy that only avoids the ‘R’ rating by not using curse words for what they actually mean.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Marwencol (2010) ****

NR, 83 min.
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Starring: Mark Hogancamp

This is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s surprising, heartwarming, shocking, intelligent, a little weird, naked, and beautiful. Those last two are its most striking features. It’s a close and intimate story. It may sound quirky in its description and may seem like one of those strange people stories, but it isn’t. It is so much more than you might imagine from my mere recommendation here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Next Caller (2009) *

NR, 15 min.
Director/Writer: Patrick Rea
Starring: Allan Kayser, Jennifer Friend, Richard Zvosec

I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground being critical of a movie like “Next Caller”, a locally produced short horror film that cannot hide it’s Christian-based ideals. I don’t have anything against Christian filmmaking, but I find that like with Christian-based music, it all too often abandons artistry to preach at its audience.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—The Mill & the Cross (2011) ****

NR, 92 min.
Director: Lech Majewski
Writers: Lech Majewski, Michael Francis Gibson (also book), Pieter Bruegel (painting “The Procession to Calvary”)
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling, Joanna Litwin, Dorota Lis, Marian Makula

“The Mill & the Cross” is a difficult film to describe. It is like no other film I’ve ever seen. It attempts to tell the story of the inspiration behind Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “The Procession to Calvary”. I don’t know if the story it tells is based on any facts about Bruegel or not. I wouldn’t guess so. Not because it seems unlikely, but because it is so magical in the way it tells its story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—50/50 (2011) ***

R, 100 min.
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall

It’s funny. Before cancer touches you, it’s just some form of background noise. You don’t like it, and you feel for those whom it has touched, but it’s never a constant. Once it’s touched you—and there are few it hasn’t—it seems to show up everywhere. Of course, a movie about a cancer survivor isn’t really a place you wouldn’t expect it, but everything within that movie has more meaning than it would otherwise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—For Your Eyes Only (1981) ***½

PG, 127 min.
Director: John Glen
Writers: Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson, Ian Fleming (stories “For Your Eyes Only” and “Risico”)
Starring: Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet, Julian Glover, Topol, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Cassandra Harris, Jill Bennet, Michael Gothard, John Wyman, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Perhaps James Bond is not what you typically think of when you think of for Valentine’s Day, but 007 films consist of two things—action and sex. When Bond isn’t saving the world by blowing up submarines and turning to bad guys’ torture death traps against them, he’s saving the world by having sex with the most beautiful women in the world, good and bad alike.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Frankenstein (1910) ***

NR, 16 min.
Director: J. Searle Dawley
Writers: J. Searle Dawley, Mary Shelley (novel)
Starring: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller

The first ever film production of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel “Frankenstein” may very well be the first horror movie ever made. To modern audiences, it probably plays more like a comic interpretation of the story. Even the title card that explains that this is a “liberal” adaptation of the book has an air of comedy about it. But in 1910, a film like this was amazing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—The Phantom (1996) *

PG, 100 min.
Director: Steve Wincer
Writers: Jeffrey Boam, Lee Falk (characters)
Starring: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, James Remar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bill Smitrovich

“The Phantom” gained a surprising amount of good reviews upon its theatrical release in 1996. That’s not to say it garnered mostly positive reviews. It’s critical reception was mediocre at best, but it’s those positive reviews that really boggle my mind. I can see not ‘hating’ this movie, although I did hate it. But, the admiration that came from some of the country’s greatest critics at the time is inexplicable.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D (PG) ***

Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson
Queen Amidala/Padmé: Natalie Portman
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor
Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd
Senator Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
Jar Jar Binks: Ahmed Best
Shmi Skywalker: Pernilla August
Darth Maul: Ray Park

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by George Lucas. Running time: 136 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action/violence).

A little less than 13 years ago, I wrote my first movie review. I’d been a cineaste for years and had long yearned to get my opinions of movies out for others to share. The movie that was probably most responsible for sending me down the road to cinecstacy to the degree I have gone was probably 1977’s “Star Wars”, which I still vividly remember seeing in theaters for the first time when I was six. I took George Lucas’s return to the series as my queue to begin my film criticism hobby.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Penny Thoughts ’12—High Fidelity (2000) ****

R, 113 min.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: D.V. DeVincentis, John Cusack, Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg, Nick Hornby (novel)
Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejl, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr

Wow. I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoy this movie. I love this movie. I love it. I love it. This movie is like spending two hours watching and listening to one of my best friends. The movie spoke directly to me in 2000. The book spoke directly to me in 1996. John Cusack, who stars in the film, continually throughout the movie to breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to whoever is watching.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Warrior (2011) ***

PG-13, 140 min.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writers: Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, Cliff Dorfman
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Maximiliano Hernandez, Bryan Callen, Sam Sheridan, Kurt Angle

Watching “Warrior” I had to ask myself, “Is this really a true story?” Upon the film’s release last fall, it somehow got the reputation of being based on true events. Several critics reported it as such in their reviews. However, the movie was not advertized as a “true story,” and although some details were based on a U.S. Marine that one of the screenwriters interviewed before he went back for his third tour in Afghanistan, it would seem little in this movie is based on fact.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Valhalla Rising (2009) ***

NR, 93 min.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Alexander Morton, Maarten Stevenson, Gary McCormack, Gary Lewis, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart, Rony Bridges, Robert Harrison

I’ve been doing this for quite some time, and rarely does a movie come along that leaves me scratching my head wondering just what do I think about this movie. “Valhalla Rising” is a movie that does just that. I don’t know what to think of this film. I think I like it. I’m sure many won’t.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Dolphin Tale (2011) ***

PG, 113 min.
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Writers: Karen Janszen, Noam Dromi
Starring: Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Austin Stowell

“Dolphin Tale” is an innocuous family film. I suppose that’s not exactly the strongest compliment that you can throw at a movie, but there it is. There isn’t much to find offense with in the film. It tells the true story of Winter, a dolphin who was found on the coast of Florida wrapped up in a crab trap.  This is a tale of an unlikely survival.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close / ** (PG-13)

Oskar Schell: Thomas Horn
Thomas Schell: Tom Hanks
Linda Schell: Sandra Bullock
The Renter: Max von Sydow
Oskar’s Grandmother: Zoe Caldwell
Abby Black: Viola Davis
William Black: Jeffrey Wright
Stan the Doorman: John Goodman

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by Eric Roth. Based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Running time: 129 min. Rated PG-13 (for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language).

I remember exactly where I was when I first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t a resident of New York City, although I had been just four years prior to that date. I remember the 1993 attack. I knew instantly it was a terrorist attack, although the news media was reluctant to report it as such in those first few minutes. I cannot imagine what it must’ve been like to be in the city that day.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Road to the Super Bowl (2012) ***

NR, 43 min.
Narrator: Tom Selleck
Starring: Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Matt Stafford, Victor Cruz, Cam Newton, Tom Coughlin, Tony Romo, Tim Tebow, Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson

NFL Films has long been the pinnacle of professional sports documentary filmmaking. Each year they produce numerous films highlighting that season’s teams, victories and losses. Their entire league season overview “Road to the Super Bowl” debuted early in the day on Super Bowl Sunday as part of NBC’s daylong build up to the Super Bowl XLVI rematch between the New York Football Giants and the New England Patriots.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Salvador (1986) ***

R, 122 min.
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone, Rick Boyle
Starring: James Woods, James Belushi, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Michael Murphy, Cindy Gibb, Tony Plana, Juan Fernández

Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” is all over the place. Reflecting the morally ambiguous personality of its main subject, journalist Richard Boyle, the movie rarely sits down long enough to focus on what seems to be its most important plot aspect, the peasant revolution in El Salvador in 1980 and 1981.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—The Ides of March (2011) **

R, 101 min.
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon (also play “Farragut North”)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” might look like a good exposé on the corruption inherent in the political process, but under some scrutiny it falls apart as dramatic fiction.  Is corruption inevitable in the political process? It is when there is a plot to serve, that’s for sure.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Le Quattro Volte (2010) ****

NR, 88 min.
Director/Writer: Michelangelo Frammartino
Starring: Giuseppe Fuda

Sometimes when I’m not sure what angle to take on a movie, I’ll do a little research about it and get my bearings. Sometimes I’ll find that no one seems to have their bearings. That’s what my research on the Italian film “Le Quattro Volte” led to because the movie is so good and yet so simple.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Drive (2011) ****

R, 100 min.
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Writers: Hossein Amini, James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman

My second viewing of the excellent film “Drive” seems a good place to discuss the star rating scale. For those of you who were paying attention, you may be slightly confused by the history of this film on A Penny in the Well. In my original review of the film, I awarded it a three and a half star rating. Then it ended up on my Top Eleven Movies of 2011 list, ahead of some other films that I had awarded four stars. (It wasn’t the only one, either.) Now, it shows up as a Penny Thought with an adjusted four stars for its rating. Just what the hell am I trying to pull?