Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Love You Phillip Morris

image (2009)
Directed by
Glenn Ficarra
Written by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra, from the book by Steve McVicar
Starring Jim Carrey, Ewen McGregor, Leslie Mann
IMDB Entry

Jim Carrey is not made up to be a modern comedian. He came to prominence as a wild man who would do anything for a joke.* But he really started out as a light comedian a la Cary Grant.  The wild man persona made him a star, but the one thing that kept it his overacting tolerable was that you could feel, deep down, there was a certain charm hidden beneath the stupid jokes.

Now, Carrey is getting a bit old to play his hyperactive character, so he's been branching out into more serious roles.  And he's not afraid of a challenge, as I Love You Phillip Morris.

The movie is as weird and wild as any Carrey film, but it's actually based on a true story. It's the biography of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey). Russell's life was, to say the least, different.  His first job was as a cop, but after an unhappy (for him) marriage and a series of other events, he realized he was gay, and moved to South Beach to support himself by becoming an outrageous and over-the-top con man.

It lands him in jail for fraud.  But while there, he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).  And Russell wants to do anything to be with Phillip -- and does.

The role is clearly a stretch for Carrey.  Not only is he playing a gay character, but a character who is clearly taking part and enjoying gay sex.**  It is helped by the fact that, even though he's conning people, he's always much more likeable than any of the characters he's swindling.

McGregor plays far against type, too.  He started out as a serious actor and, of course, became a heterosexual heartthrob.  Not only is playing a gay character a bit different, but his character makes a post look like a rocket scientist.  He never really catches on to Russell's games*** and, blinded by love, never seems to see what's in front of his face.

Director Glenn Ficarra had already scored some success with the scripts of Bad Santa; this was the first film he directed.

The movie did not do well at the US box office and was barely released.****  I'm sure that a film like this -- with explicit homosexuality and disrespect for everything -- was a marketing nightmare, where many areas of the country would greet it with outrage.

But if you want to see Carey and McGregor in a very different role, this is the movie to watch.

*Similar to Robin Williams.

**His preferences are revealed in a scene where he's having sex with someone and suddenly his partner raises his head.

***Well, few do, but he can see them up close.

****It did well enough overseas, though, to make back its costs.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fantastic Planet

Fantastic Planet (Le Planète sauvage)
Directed by
René Laloux
Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor, from a novel by Stefan Wul
Voices: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart, Jean Valmont
IMDB Entry

While fantasy films are the major part of the animated feature canon, it's strange that there is so very little science fiction in animated form. It would seem to be an ideal medium:  space battles are cheaper to film when their done on celluloid and paper.  Yet there have been relatively few of them.  Wikipedia lists 74, any many of those (and nearly all of the ones worth watching) appeared in the last 15 years.  Of those created before 1995, one stands out as the best:  Fantastic Planet.

It's set on the world of Ygam, a world populated by the Draags, creatures hundreds of feet high. Also on the planet are the Oms,* brought from their home planet, living wild, and considered vermin by the Draags.  Except for the few they capture and use as pets.

The movies follows the life of Terr (voice of Eric Baugin), who is orphaned as a baby by a bit of random and unthinking cruelty by some Draag children.  He adopted by Tiwa (Jennifer Drake) as a pet.  As he grows up, Terr finds a Draag learning headset and begins to learn about the world.  He eventually escapes from Tiwa and finds other Oms living wild.  But the Draags decide to make an effort to wipe out the wild Oms once and for all, and Terr must help lead the Oms to escape.

The concept for the movie was not new at the time,** and the plot alone is not the strength of the movie.  It survives on the visuals, portraying a truly alien world, with strange creatures and events that a visually stunning.  In a way, it reminds me of some of the creatures in Yellow Submarine -- just as imaginative and far more sinister.  Here's a sampling:

The film was from the vision of French director René Laloux, and was animated in Czechoslovakia, where the metaphor probably hit home pretty strongly.  It won prizes at Cannes and other film festivals, and critical acclaim in the US where it was distributed by Roger Corman.

The film does have flaws.  The ending is very rushed and cuts away from what should have been some very dramatic issues and simply says, "everything's solved now."  But the movie still does have emotional appeal, and the situation helps to overcome the problems.  The possibilities of animation and science fiction have rarely been better served.

*A pun in French on the word "hommes," meaning "men."  European science fiction has a strong tendency to be didactic.

**William Tenn's Of Men and Monsters had exactly the same setup, and was far more subtly handled, and with more character depth. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ball of Fire

Ball of fire (1941)
Directed by
Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
Story by Billy Wilder & Thomas Monroe
Starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, Aubrey Mather, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Alan Jenkins

People often used to complain that Billy Wilder was a cynic. But often a cynic is just the shell of a true romantic, and Wilder showed flashes of this in his script (with longtime writing partner Charles Brackett) for Ball of Fire.  And with the great direction of Howard Hawks, the film is one of the top comedies of its era.

The story takes place in the Totten Foundation, where seven scholars (Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Aubrey Mather) are working on a dictionary, along with their expert on language Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper).  Potts discovered after talking with his garbage man (Alan Jenkins) that his article on slang is hopelessly outdated and goes out into New York to find examples. 

He ends up in a nightclub where Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is performing and wants to use her as one of his sources.  She turns him down, but discovers she's in hot water with the cops.  Her boyfriend, gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is wanted for murder and she needs to be stashed away for a few days.  And the Totten Foundation seems the ideal place.  She convinces Potts and the other seven professors to let her stay.  It creates havoc, of course, as the men -- who are all bachelors (except one widower) -- find the presence of an attractive and lively woman is, to say the least, a distraction.  Meanwhile Potts begins to have feelings for her, but Joe Lilac has other ideas.

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and the professors The movie is considered a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.* What gives it much of its charm is the reaction of the professors.  Though they are all old, they are not dirty old men, but rather more like children delighted by the the new presence in their midst.  There is a lot of sweetness in their reactions to the new things Sugarpuss brings with her, and a shyness where they are clearly afraid to be anything other then gentlemen.  The professors are played by a group of great character actors of the time.  I've written about S.Z. Sakall, but some of the rest are familiar faces even now.**

You also get character actor turns by the great Charles Lane (hundreds of films, often with only a couple of lines), Allan Jenkins, Dan Duryea (one of the great heavies of the 40s and 50s), and even a bit part for Elisha Cook, Jr. (Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon).

And Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck make a great romantic couple.  Cooper uses a lot of his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town charm, while Stanwyck manages to portray Sugarpuss as a smart and sexy woman whose turn to romance is perfectly natural.  Also of note was Richard Hadyn, whose Professor Oddly is so incredibly charming as he describes his time with his late wife.

As is typical for him, Hawks keeps everything moving quickly, mixing comedy, romance, and villainy. 

*The similarity is specifically mentioned.

**Henry Travers was Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life, while Leonid Kinskey played a shady watch dealer in Casablanca.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Good Bye, Lenin

Goof Bye Lenin (2003)
Directed by
Wolfgang Becker
Written by Wolfang Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg
Starring  Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas
IMDB Entry

What people often forget about totalitarian regimes is that there are people under them -- and not the ones in power -- who like them. Good Bye, Lenin is a charming fairy tale about what happens to one of these people when the regime fails.

The story is about Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl), who lives in communist East Germany in 1989.  His mother Christiana (Katrin Saß) is a gung-ho committed communist who, when she sees her son at an anti-communist rally, has a near-fatal heart attack and falls into a coma, just before the Berlin wall comes down. 

When she awakes several months later, capitalism has come to East Berlin.  But not for Christiana.  Her doctor has told Alex that the slightest shock could cause a second heart attack, and, since the end for communism would be the greatest shock of all, Alex decides to pretend it didn't happen.  With help from his girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) and his friend Denis (Florian Lukas), Alex is able to show his mother that her dreams came true:  the Communist government has triumphed over all of Germany.  Denis helps to edit old news reports to keep up the charade, and they find old jars of food and refill them so that Christiana won't realize the brands are no more.

The movie is a charming mix of comedy and pathos.  Alex is clearly a loving son, and the extent he goes to to fool his mother is very funny.  At the same time, it's more than just a joke.  He learns some things about himself that he never knew, as well as the reason for Christiana's gung ho communism.

The film got good reviews and some awards but, like most English language films, didn't get much notice and faded away.