Archive for April, 2009

Review: A Plumm Summer(2007)

plumm-summerSomewhere around the turn of the century, the kid movie was lost.  You know what I mean: that breed of film meant just for the eyes and hearts of kids between five and eleven.  One that isn’t laced with pop-cultural jabs to satisfy beleaguered parents.  One that doesn’t rely on overused fart jokes to score a laugh.  That rare, non-animated jewel that used to hold a prominent place on Disney’s once glimmering crown.  

A Plumm Summer, based on a true story and getting a better than average DVD release soon (5/5/09), ran the film festival circuit after its 2007 release, earning awards at the Austin and International Family Film Festivals.  The movie almost doesn’t belong among the pantheon of cynical kid shows more dependent on obnoxiousness than actual plot or character.  In a way, it’s a little past its time, which makes it all the more precious. 

In the small town of Billings, Montana in 1968, Elliot Plumm (Chris J. Kelly, aka Chris Massoglia) sits just on the doorstep of adolescence; that awkward realm of time when girls start to take up more space in a young boy’s mind.  His little brother Rocky (Owen Pierce) is five, and he hates girls.  What Rocky loves, however, is a little marionette frog puppet, the star of the town’s most popular kid’s show—Happy Herb and Froggy Doo

The community faces disaster when the poor puppet (excuse me—marionette) is frog-napped from backstage during a live show.  Elliot and Rocky decide to investigate.  With a little help from Haley (Morgan Flynn), the new girl who’s just moved in next door, the trio search the town, and face off against the two FBI agents (Peter Scolari and Rick Overton) sent to investigate the theft.

First-time director Caroline Zelder picked up the story from novice screenwriter and Nicholl Fellowship recipient T.J. Lynch, and polished the final draft with producing partner Frank Antonelli.  The script runs entirely on its own gas.  Not once does the narrative stumble over a pop-culture crutch, or other ill-advised attempts to push itself into present day allegory. The narrative, therefore, becomes a model kid movie, made for a kid’s enjoyment, with almost no concern for wooing anyone over the age of 12. 

Still, adults will find enough to chew on with their kids at their sides.  A Plumm Summer dabbles more in the growing pains of its coming of age themes, examining the loss of childlike belief, the cusp of adulthood, and the mantle of fatherhood. 

This is not to say the film plays too deep—there’s nothing here that’ll fly over the heads of most kids.  Charm gushes from the movie.  The narrative tilts its universe in favor of the young, making even a standard robbery investigation akin to the level of a missing person, fraught with all the risk, peril and twists common to those old Disney adventures.  

For a cast comprised of children and teens, the delivery hits the mark more than it fumbles.  Morgan Flynn has a natural likeability that rises to the surface early in the film, and little Owen Pierce has claimed a prominent spot on the cute pedestal.  He embodies the raw, innocent enthusiasm that only five-year-olds can muster, and does so with such empathy that it will force adults to recollect that long forgotten age. 

The film trips just a little over some of its dialog.  Script development could have used a little tweaking to unearth the deeper richness that sits under this movie, though it helps that Zelder has assembled a strong adult cast, whose talents help supplement the minor flaws. 

Among the more familiar faces, you’ll find William Baldwin (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) as Elliot and Rocky’s washed up dad, Mick.  Veteran TV talents round out the cast as well, including Lisa Guerrero (Sunset Beach) taking a fine turn as Roxie Plumm, with the always-reliable Henry Winkler as the childlike entertainer Herb McAllister, and Brenda Strong (Desperate Housewives) as Herb’s wife and showbiz partner.

Special features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, an insightful commentary from director Zelder and producer Antonelli, and a theatrical trailer.  Though a small feature detailing the actual events the film portrays would have been nice, an attached feature covering the red carpet at the film’s premiere does provide some insight.  Herb McAllister created Froggy Doo in 1955, and enjoyed a successful 22-year career as an entertainer.  Details about McAllister, and the actual frog-napping, can be found here.   

At 99 minutes, A Plumm Summer holds attention for just the right length.  It makes a safe, solid pick to fill a little kid’s movie night, and might even inspire a chance for parents to recall the oft-ignored memories of childhood that tether them to their kids.

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Trailer Watch: Avatar

avatarWarner Bros. put out a teaser to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone about a year before its release.  Columbia did the same with Godzilla.  One film was a hit, the other doesn’t even warrant further mention.  The point is: big movies get promoted.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to it—if the movie is supposed to be an event, it gets promoted. 

So where’s the teaser to Avatar

In the 12 years since Titanic, James Cameron has created a short-lived and forgettable TV show, produced a handful of documentaries, and even supported one archeologist’s assertion that he’d found Jesus’ grave.  Before Titanic, Cameron had directed five feature films within the same span of time, crowning his achievement with the highest grossing film to date.  He’s been hard at work over the last two-and-a-half years with what writer Paula Parisi said in 1998 would be the coolest movie ever made. 

You’d think Twentieth Century Fox would want to promote the hell out of this thing; the film premieres December 18.

Supposedly, this 3D IMAX release will utilize the same technology that brought U2-3D to vivid life last year.  And if so, this would be a groundbreaking release.  A game changer.  A James Cameron film.  Would this not make great fodder for a 90-second teaser, glimpsing the film’s scope and whetting the appetites of nerds and movie-lovers everywhere? 

And yet, eight months out: nothing.  Not even a poster. (Nope, that one up there is a big fat fake)

I recall similar frustration expressed throughout the internets regarding another semi-recent Fox release—The X-Files: I Want to Believe.  Creator/director Chris Carter kept a tight lid on the film’s production.  Fox put out a modest trailer a few months before its July 2008 release.  The entire tone of the promotion was eerily reserved.  And there’s a better than even chance Fox kept it that way because the movie just wasn’t all that good.

On the feature front, even the weakest entry in the Cameron library (excluding his Piranha sequel) is still a pretty good flick.  You’d think after mowing down the box office with his last film, there’d be a degree of fueled anticipation, but someone somewhere apparently feels otherwise.  Which means Avatar may not be all that good either.

Cameron has always faced criticism for putting flare over substance, but his work occasions surprising depth of theme (I’m thinking primarily of The Abyss and Terminator 2).  I imagine Avatar would aspire to the same quality.  Anyone who had a chance to read the Avatar treatment before it was pulled off the internet knows the film has big ideas at the helm.  The treatment, however, has already received criticism for pushing a heavy environmental message, a topic that’s played a big hand to a number of recent sci-fi films, and to varying results. 

This is assuming, of course, the director sticks to his early treatment.  Cameron wrote the outline more than a decade ago, and details inevitably get tweaked given that much time to simmer. 

Besides, this is all just speculation anyway.  Titanic‘s trailer played at ShoWest about eight months before its December 1997 premiere, if I remember right.  Before then, many thought that film would earn a fate worse than its namesake.  $601 million later, and the word “titanic” reclaimed its mojo. 

The role a trailer plays in the success of a film can vary.  Some excellent trailers build buzz for mediocre films; others can thrive with little promotion on the strength of the film alone.  The absence of an Avatar trailer affords few clues as to the quality of the actual product.  But a glimpse, even a small one, at a film that industry insiders claim will change the face of going to the movies, could only bode well. 

Audiences like to get stoked, and getting stoked can only help the film.  They say even bad publicity is good publicity, you know.  No publicity, however, never worked for anyone.

Coming Soon

A post concerning the strange absence of any teaser trailer promoting James Cameron’s highly anticipated Avatar.

A review of A Plumm Summer.

And some day, in followup to the top-five list of great trailers that led to bad movies, a top-ten list of great trailers that led to great movies!

The Incredible Compostable Sun Chips Bag

Seen this ad yet?  Next year, Frito Lay will introduce a chip bag that will actually decompose in 14 weeks.  Doesn’t change the fact that, between weeks 1 and 14, it’s just a piece of trash laying in the dirt. 

According to this site, the bag only works if placed in a “hot, active compost heap.”  Too bad the ad doesn’t make this very clear — all I saw was justification to litter.  Seriously, next time I toss an empty bag of chips on the ground, if some lady yells at me to pick it up, I’m gonna yell back, “No worries!  It’s compostable!”

Of course, she just might think I said “combustible” and dive for cover.  Either way, it’ll be a good day.

A quick word about Knowing

nicolas_cage_knowingWent to see the movie over the weekend.  I want to try and write something a little more substantial in response to the film, but I wanted to get this down in the meantime.

(Quick warning–I’m going to spoil things a little here, and the film is really best enjoyed knowing as little as possible before hand.)

I’ve read and heard an assortment of reactions to the film, particularly the ending, which turns a few echatological preconceptions on their ears.  And then there’s the “aliens.” 

Presuming the beings at the film’s climax are simply aliens blurs the other implications raised by the presence of those prophetic numbers.    More than anything, as Chattaway already noted in his review at CT Movies, the film challenges conventions. 

When Jesus came into the world, the culture at the time had a lot of ideas about the kind of role the Messiah would play when he arrived.  Jesus defied all of them.  It’s not too big a stretch to think that, when the final days do occur, they will defy many of the ideas we’ve previously held. 

What we have in Knowing, I think, is more of a redemptive parable.  I can see how some would find the whole idea ridiculous, but there’s a measure of absurdity to any fantastic tale.

Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

bourne11Once again, the latest cinematic entry of the Bourne franchise remains so in name only.  Whether or not that’s a bad thing is a debate for another time and place (a quick plea: read the books, for they are both satisfying and unspoiled, even if you’ve seen the films).  Once Bourne made the transition from page to screen, he inhabited another universe; one he was ready to conquer with his special blend of mystery, heroism, and quest for redemption.

The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little playful with its narrative, sandwiching the first acts of the film in between the conclusion of Supremacy, and that film’s epilog–a daring, and altogether useful choice.  Still on the run from those who would brand him a criminal, Bourne learns a reporter has begun writing a series of articles devoted to his killer alias, and sets out to find the writer with hopes of tearing down the rest of the wall separating Bourne from his past association with top secret CIA program Treadstone.

Though Ultimatum retains much of the creative force behind Supremacy, the focus of Bourne’s evolution as a character fades to the middle ground this time.  Indeed, one of the factors that elevated Supremacy above the over-hyped Identity was turning Bourne into a hero with a quest a few shades deeper than cracking yet another web of conspiracy entrenched within Hollywood’s idea of the evil CIA.  The evolving narrative of the Bourne legacy has spun around ideas of memory, moral conscious, choice and questions about what it means to be human.  Ultimatum breezes past these and other more character defining elements, choosing instead to focus on the action.

And if it’s action you crave, you’re in for a feast.  Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) brings back the chaotic maelstrom that somehow retains a semblance of order, though it’s already become a bit old shoe.  The flurry of cuts, edits and shaky-cam just leave too much room for confusion.  At one point, Jason fends off an attacker with a towel, and even dispatches his foe with said linen, though I am at a loss as to the how.  I replayed the scene twice, just to be sure, and I’m reasonably confident Jason strangled the poor guy.  A minor quibble, perhaps, but a better film would not have left me room to question.

By now, the role of Jason Bourne has become a staple persona that doesn’t allow Matt Damon any room to maneuver with the character.  He comes through with what’s provided, though he inspires a little less empathy this time (and maybe, as I stated earlier, this is more of a scripting problem than anything else).  His supporting cast is a who’s-who underused talent.  Joan Allen returns as CIA deputy director Landy, and unfortunately has less to do this time, running second fiddle to the villainous Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a cookie-cutter CIA bad guy taking orders from the shadowy Dr. Hirsch (Albert Finney).

The plot stays thin and light, always playing around with hints of depth and intrigue, but only enough to make the stakes feel more important rather than earning real importance.  Dialog merely transitions the narrative to the next action set piece, and I’ve seen better delivery from a high school drama club.  But seriously, who comes to these movies to see an actor chew scenery?

Downshifting Bourne as a character on this carnival ride has weakened assertions that he has become the action hero of the age.  We had the opportunity to glimpse his beating heart through his relationship with the ill-fated Marie (Franke Potente), but Ultimatum fails to reconnect on that level.  It’s an enjoyable, candy-coated escape that keeps its hand submerged in weightier themes just enough to elevate it over most actioners (see Peter T. Chattaway’s discussion of the trilogy’s water symbolism).  Is it enough to earn Bourne a place alongside the likes of Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, or even Bruce Willis’s John McClane (sequels notwithstanding)?  Maybe.   But again, a better film would not have left any doubt.

(also posted at Blogcritics)

Review: The Whole Shootin Match (1978)

whole-shootin-match1While there are certain talents and attributes one can learn through quiet, devoted study and repetition, some young artists seem born with a special endowment to shape a story within the medium of film.  Eagle Pennell is not likely a name you remember, but he possessed the gift.  He died not so long ago in 2002, a victim of relentless alcoholism.  He left behind a small cadre of films that I imagine do not find their way onto most people’s Netflix queues.  However, even if you’re just a casual buff—someone who dares to chance the library of lesser known artists for no other reason than that you love film and surrender to its mighty draw—you may have heard of Eagle, and the little film that put him on the map: The Whole Shootin’ Match

Meet Loyd and Frank (Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis).  Loyd’s a dreamer, whittling away at the junk pile of gears and hoses that litter his property, hoping to create something that might make him rich.  Frank…well, he’s just along for the ride, weary from the weight of so much wounded pride and a desire to rise above his plight that he’ll follow Loyd anywhere, even if it means peddling polyurethane. 

Filmed on old black and white film stock with a cast made mostly of volunteers, The Whole Shootin’ Match introduces us to this bumbling pair of blue-collar Texans on the verge of an idea that just might take them over the hump.  Though the film is dated, the narrative takes on a timeless tenor, making its debut release on DVD an appropriate occasion. 

Frank earns money taking odd jobs, which keeps him and his wife Paulette (Doris Hargrave) just above the poverty level.  He’s a man-child with very little restraint, and the perfect partner for Loyd, just as careless and uninhibited, even if he is more creative and less bound by the responsibilities of a family. 

If anything, The Whole Shootin’ Match creates a nightmare scenario of glut, temptation, and witless pursuits.  What keeps it level is the charm and breadth of Pennell’s characters, brought to life through astute scriptwriting that possesses a firm grip on its universe.  Perry and Davis embody their characters with enough natural charm and clueless tomfoolery that you start to wonder where the actors end and the characters begin.  Davis in particular eschews a deep, entrenched insecurity that makes him at once believable, if somewhat loathsome. 

Perhaps the best ray of light in the story is Paulette, Frank’s enduring wife, whose got brains big enough to pound both of these morons into the ground, but lacks the fortitude to do anything about it.  As Roger Ebert has stated, she’s the lone voice of wisdom to whom no one ever listens. 

Though made on the cheap, shot over weekends, and pieced together with nothing more than passion and talent, the film plays like an honest contender.  Pennell accentuates his creation with tight precision, lighting his sets to the full advantage of his black and white stock, and editing the entire gamut within an inch of its life. 

It’s easy for one unfamiliar to his work to miss this film’s subtle brilliance, especially this far removed from its original 1978 release.  The Whole Shootin’ Match entered the small, fledgling world of independent film and inspired its renaissance, even planting the seed in Robert Redford that would later germinate into the creation of the Sundance Film festival.  Its release on DVD this past February makes it the first time Pennell’s filmmaking debut has ever had a chance to reach a larger audience. 

The DVD set boasts a collector’s booklet, introducing newcomers to Pennell’s work, including reflections from Lou Perryman, co-writer Lin Sutherland, and others.  You’ll find early reviews of the film, including Roger Ebert’s original 1980 review, and his look back from 2007.  Also attached to the set is the film’s mellifluous soundtrack on CD, written and performed on 12- and 6-string guitar and mandolin by Eagle’s brother Chuck.  Special features include a rare interview with Eagle, and the feature-length documentary “The King of Texas” which details Eagle’s life and career, from the making of the film, to his death in 2002.  

The story of Eagle Pennell nearly warrants a film itself.  Writers and critics will tell you he reached his zenith with his second film, Last Night at the Alamo (1983), and could never quite get his game on afterward.  His remarkable contribution to American independent film, however, is rendered in this release as a landmark of remembrance for his enthusiasts, and an important primer to those who may be reading his name here for the first time.  Get your mind right, and give it a look.

(also posted at Blogcritics)