Monthly Archive for August, 2012

Penelope

Penelope (8/28/12) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Mark Palansky, written by Leslie Caveny, starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara and Peter Dinklage. Penelope Wilhern lives both (A) hidden away deep within a big mansion and (B) under a curse that will only be broken if she can find someone “of her own kind” to love her for who she is… pig nose and all. This was a very sweet movie that was ultimately about an important and universal subject: self-esteem. Having said that, in spite of a sympathetic main character and a likable cast, it wasn’t entirely emotionally successful, somehow. This is possibly because its fairy tale tone — which reminded me more than anything of Bryan Fuller’s 2007-2009 TV show Pushing Daisies — got in the way of me caring about what happened to poor little pig-nosed Penelope.

Ultimate Avengers II

Ultimate Avengers II (8/27/12) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Will Meugniot, Richard Sebast and Bob Richardson, featuring the voice talents of Justin Gross, Michael Massee and Olivia d’Abo. When a Nazi Chitauri alien tries to poach the secret African kingdom Wakanda’s stash of Vibranium, The Black Panther turns to Captain America for assistance… and good ol’ cap shows up with a few of his friends. Obviously I rented this at least in part because of this summer’s biggest blockbuster. Unfortunately Ultimate Avengers II — which I never consciously compared to its live action cousin — was disappointing from start to finish. While I normally would have gotten behind pretty much any Nazi alien worldwide invasion premise, the Wakanda / Black Panther storyline ate up too much screen time and held little interest for me. This is a little embarassing, but before renting this direct-to-video animated sequel, I really should have read my 3-star review of Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (2006), in which I wrote: “Though I enjoyed it mildly, I probably won’t make a point of watching the sequel.” Hmmm… Yep, should’ve taken my own advice, but somehow I had a memory of liking the original more. Well, that’s show biz!

Above Suspicion

Above Suspicion (8/22/12) TCM (1943 **1/2) Directed by Richard Thorpe, based on the novel by Helen MacInnes, starring Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray and Basil Rathbone. The inventer of Flubber and “Mommie Dearest” spend their honeymoon in Nazi Germany. Okay, once more, slightly more seriously: An American Oxford professor and his new American wife spend their honeymoon in Nazi Germany. There, satisfied? I know I haven’t seen every WWII-era film ever made, but it’s still a kick to watch a decent movie from that period I’ve never seen before. Above Suspicion wasn’t exactly Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon, but it was fun, and there was even a fun chemistry between MacMurray and Crawford. Heck, I could even imagine it as the first film in a series based on a husband-and-wife team of American secret agents. Kind of like The Thin Man‘s Nick and Nora, only with more Nazi spies and less binge drinking.

Invincible, Vol. 16: Family Ties

Invincible, Vol. 16: Family Ties (8/21/12) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. Originally published in Image Comics’ Invincible #85-90. Allen the alien decides the only way to save the universe from the Viltrumite “scourge” is to wipe them out on their new home planet: Earth. This was possibly the weakest Invincible book I’ve read. Here are just three reasons why: Long scenes of thought balloons in space, unmotivated ultraviolence and weirdly shifting character motivations. I’ve been a fan of this series from the beginning, but I can’t help but wonder if Kirkman has been distracted by the rising popularity of The Walking Dead. The “extended telepathic conversation in space” was a prime example: There was no action. It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t even really all that interesting, even though they were nominally debating the fate of everyone on the planet Earth. As a friend of mine once said in reference to a film I’ve long since forgotten, it was “a curiously uninvolving story about the end of the world.” How did Kirkman allow himself to get away with that? The central theme of Invincible seems to have morphed into “do the ends justify the means?” I only hope Kirkman is able to take that to some place more interesting.

The Savages

The Savages (8/21/12) Netflix (2007 **1/2) Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco. Wendy and Jon Savage have to put their estranged father Lenny into a nursing home, which forces them to deal with a lot of their own neurotic personal bullshit. I knew almost nothing about this film going in, not even its premise. I had vague memories of it getting good reviews when it first came out and I’ve always enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman. But watching it was a bit of an ordeal, and its 114 minute running time felt much longer. Quite frankly, in spite of what was supposed to be an “uplifting” ending, I found The Savages depressing as hell. It probably didn’t help that the the many similarities between the film and events in my own personal life kept making me squirm. So, the bottom line: If you liked the downbeat dysfunctional dynamics of Rachel Getting Married (2008), you’ll LOVE The Savages.

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (8/20/12) DWA Screening (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, starring Jared Gilman and Kara Kayward as Sam and Suzy, with an all-star cast including: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel. Set in the early 1960s, Suzy and Sam are two young New England misfits who conspire to run away together. The quintessentially quirky Wes Anderson has only directed seven features, and it’s troubling to me somehow that three years had passed since The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). For me, one of his films (2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums) is one of my all-time favorites and only one (2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) was a misfire. Anderson’s highly mannered writing and directing (and casting) style can be a thing of beauty, but it can also create a wall between his characters and his audience. Moonrise Kingdom got around this problem by centering its story on two characters with built-in audience sympathy: Who could possibly turn their backs (or emotional resistance) on two adolescent lovebirds who just want to be together in spite of the wishes of the world? And what a world it was, complete with an awesomely original geographical setting and populated with flawed but generally well-intentioned characters. (I guarantee you’ve never seen Edward Norton this likable.) Finally, on top of everything else, Wes Anderson also managed to tap into an eye-pleasing aesthetic straight out of an early 1960s Fall Season edition of the Sears catalog. It was a visual treat that I personally found surprisingly familar… and extremely comforting.

Cinematic Titanic: The Doll Squad

Cinematic Titanic: The Doll Squad (8/19/12) Saban Theater, Beverly Hills (1973/2012 ***1/2) Original film directed by Ted V. Mikels, starring Michael Ansara and Francine York. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alums Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl bring the serious funny to this live performance riff of an early-1970s boobalicious action film. The evening’s entertainment began with a few life comedy bits, including Conniff doing a solo standup set and J. Elvis Weinstein (formerly Josh Weinstein) performing the MST3K theme song in the manner of Elvis Costello. And then the main event began. I won’t bother with a review of The Doll Squad itself, other than to say that (A) it contained all the necessary ingredients for a sound and thorough riffing and (B) as exploitative as its pre-Charlie’s Angels premise was, it never got so sexy or violent that it undermined the tone of the comedy. As an MST3K fan from waaay back, it was pretty trippy to sit in an auditorium filled with like-minded folks (along with the occasional whiff of Mary Jane) while some very familiar voices talked over the top of a not-so-great film. Even without robot puppets, the whole effect brought a nostalgic smile to my face, because it felt so damned much like watching one of the original episodes.

Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 10: Ghosts

Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 10: Ghosts (8/18/12) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Mark Brooks and Tyler Kirkham. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #47-53. The FF rescue Sue Storm from capture in Siberia at the hands of The (new) Red Ghost, but when they return, they find Thanos and his amazing friends have descended upon New York in search of the cosmic cube. Once again I found myself less than thrilled by the “Ultimate” reincarnation of one of the FF’s best villains, in this case The Red Ghost. And while the Thanos storyline that concluded this volume took some interesting turns, its resolution wasn’t particularly strong.

Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan’s Travels (8/18/12) TCM (1941 ***1/2) Written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake and William Demarest. A big-shot Hollywood director dresses up as a hobo and hits the road to learn about life in order to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? This comedy is on AFI’s Top 100 Movies list, and I’d watched it years ago. My recollection is that I was under-impressed. This time around I feel like I “got it” a bit more, though I still felt the frantic slapstick chase scene through the countryside that occured early on was pretty darn disharmonious with the tone of the rest of the film. Ultimately, while I acknowledge the film’s “greatness,” I don’t think I’ll ever count it as one of my personal favorites, like Casablanca or The Godfather. Somehow the film’s final message — that the best antidote to a world full of strife sorrow is a little Hollywood-style screwball comedy (or at least a Walt Disney Pluto cartoon) — wasn’t entirely lost on me, but it also felt a tad self-serving.

North by Northwest

North by Northwest (8/15/12) Netflix (1959 ****) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Ernest Lehman, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll. Madison Avenue ad man Roger O. Thornhill gets mistaken for a fictional government agent, framed for murder and swept up in a combination spy chase / cross-country tour. I read recently that the title North by Northwest was actually completely meaningless and that one of the film’s rejected titles was, believe it or not, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. Of all the Hitchcock films, this one is probably the most Hitchcock-iest. Every shot, every beat, every scene was engineered and storyboarded down to the last frame. No wonder it made such an impact when it was first released and has become a beloved classic. We watched it on Blu-Ray and I highly recommend you do the same or — better yet — find an opportunity to see it on the big screen. The vivid Technicolor color design was stunning and the effects (particularly a climactic chase across the faces of four American presidents) still stood up more than fifty years later. As a special treat, this film also offers the granddaddy of all “walking away from explosions” shots! Bernard Herrmann’s superb musical score ran through the whole thing pulling it together elegantly. As for the actors, Eva Marie Saint played a Hitchcockian blonde with sexiness and restraint and Martin Landau played a (subtley gay) henchmen with menace and aplomb. And finally, though he never quite received the respect as an actor that some of his contemporaries did, in North by Northwest Cary Grant managed to take his “Cary Grant” persona and twist it to brilliant effect. He was even given plenty of opportunities to make use of his brilliant high comedy timing.