Saturday, September 6, 2014


Here at the Kirkham house there are several films that we revere. Obviously Jaws is on the list, just take a look at the masthead. We love Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars Trilogy, Die Hard, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and just between us friends, Defending Your Life may be our favorite Albert Brooks film.  Singin' in the Rain rules, Casablanca breaks our hearts and Chinatown is more beautiful every time I see it. With only so much love to divide up, it is hard for movies to grab our attention and become fixtures in the default watch list. Our indecisiveness with so many choices has lead us on many occasions to re-watch Zodiac.

In the last couple of years though, one film has routinely pulled us out of the house whenever we saw there was a screening in the area. I've posted pictures of my beautiful blu ray version on my Facebook page, and the soundtrack is on my Kindle, waiting to be played in the car when the traffic gets too tense for me. "Lawrence of Arabia" is a nearly four hour experience that hardly feels like it is ninety minutes. Having sung it's praises several times in the last year, I stirred the generosity of an old friend. John Shosky and I went to grad school together for a year in 1979 and 1980. For reasons too complicated to review here, John pursued his advanced degrees elsewhere after that year and I lost touch with him for a couple of decades. When people curse Facebook for the time suck that it is, I understand. but they should also remember that it has enabled millions of people to connect with family and friends that they might not see regularly. John and I reconnected a couple of years ago because of this tool and I am happy to say we are friends in the present tense and not just in the past. He has apparently been paying attention to some of my posts because out of the blue, he sent me a nice little treasure that I want to share with all of you.

Arriving at my doorstep just a few days ago was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from March of 1963. It is in good condition for a fifty year old, over-sized, photo heavy magazine. Those of you too young to remember magazines, might want to look up" Life", Look", "Readers Digest" and "Colliers". This was how we often got first looks at entertainment properties, before Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and all the other social media. The magazine John sent features a long profile of Peter O'Toole, starring in the new film "Lawrence of Arabia". The oversize cover was impossible for my scanner to fit into one shot so I have done the best I can to edit a cople of scans together so that you can see it.

The scan does not do it justice, the cover is in much better shape than it looks here. The article is several pages long and does a nice job covering O'Toole's background and his preparation to take on the role of T.E. Lawrence. This was early in the run of the picture, which was playing at the time only in Los Angeles, New York and London. The film was quite the sensation and the speculation about Peter O'Toole's future is interesting to read now that fifty years has passed and his life is ended. None of the shots in the magazine will be undiscovered treasure but they may give you other fans of the movie some moments of joy to share.

Friday, September 5, 2014

City Heat: On the Forgotten Film Cast

Some of you may not follow the 30 Years On Project, so you may have missed the link to a podcast I participated in recently. From 1984, "City Heat" with Clint and Burt. Just click on the poster and have a listen.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ghostbusters: 30th Anniversary Release

Something wonderful happened today. I don't know if it was simply the selection of the theater, the holiday weekend, or that I've been going to movies at the wrong time. We went to a screening of "Ghostbusters" and there were maybe two dozen people in the screening we were at, but the theater complex, which has 18 screens was packed! It reminded me of twenty years ago when the weekend crowds at the movies would be thick with families and couples and everyone was in line for a ticket, concessions or the bathroom. After reading several stories this week about how miserable the box office was this summer, it was refreshing to see that the movie business did not look like it was dying.

"Ghostbusters" is a movie that I covered extensively just a couple of months ago on my companion site, "30 Years On". For the full scope on the film you can click on any of the links on this page, including the poster below. Please come by and share your thoughts on that site if you can. I will say that the movie was again, great. Bill Murray is a national treasure. Also there are bits and pieces that you might notice on a forty foot screen that you miss on your home theater system. I noticed a second foreshadowing reference to the Stay Puft Marshmallow man that I missed before. There is a fading painted advertisement on the wall of a building that showed up much more clearly in this screening.

I heard people a couple of spots back from us in line to buy tickets, talking about the movie. The woman said she'd rather see a thirty year old film that she knew was good than "Lucy" which she heard was not. I've not seen "Lucy" myself so I will withhold judgement, but I can say that seeing "Ghostbusters" on the big screen was a good choice, and the price was a bargain at our theater, $6. It's going to play for the rest of the week, so you have plenty of chances to see it, don't blow the opportunity. I know it seems like you are paying for a commercial for the new Blu-ray release, but it's the best two hour commercial you will ever see.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

If I Stay

I don't know what I was doing at this movie. It is a teen romance/weepy and it has zero surprises to it. The lead actor is an interesting face without any detectable acting talent. The film plays like a promo for the album by the fictional band that is featured in the story and the soundtrack is full of pop music trying to pass itself off as indie-cool. Some of the dialogue in this sounds like it was directly taken from the young adult book that the film is based on and in this case it is not good. I thought "The Fault in our Stars" earlier this summer was dolorously depressing. This movie lays on the sadness with a trowel that is not subtle at all.

Ultimately, the reason I saw this is that I am a fan of Chloë Grace Moretz . As "Hit Girl" she has been one of my favorite characters in movies in the last ten years. She was great in "Hugo" and last year in "Carrie" she held her own. She is growing into a lovely young woman, and that probably makes me sound like a dirty old man but it's not like that. I think she is talented and I hope she has a successful career. She is very good in this movie but the material does feel far below her. This movie is made for young girls to fantasize and cry over and from what I heard in the theater, it appears to work for them.

A high school girl, who feels awkward and a bit of an outsider, has a loving relationship with her parents, falls for a mysterious guy from the Northwest, and has to make a life or death decision for herself. Take out the sparkling vampires and that is essentially what this movie is. Instead of deciding if she wants to live forever as a blood sucker, she has to choose whether to go into the light and stop living all together. There are so many teen novel cliches in this story that it might have been assembled by a computer program. The boy is an aspiring musician/rock star, she is a cellist thinking of applying to Julliard, her parents are former punk rockers living the middle class life but carrying a torch for the Clash. Oh, and it all takes place in Portland which apparently has not had a sunny day in the last twenty years. Every party is fantastic and nothing is unusual about all of the people at the party breaking out in singing an indie type song that mirrors some of the emotions the central character is going through.

I can't really give away more spoilers than the trailer does. All that she knows is taken away in an instant and she lingers in the hospital as a spirit that has to choose whether the bliss of heaven is more inviting than the burgeoning rock star that pines over her. The few moments that actually did move me are provided by veteran actor Stacey Keach. He was terrific as the unpleasant friend from the old neighborhood last year in "Nebraska". He plays Chloe's Gramps in the movie and he has a pretty emotional scene in the hospital room with her but an even better one in a flashback scene when he brings her back home from her audition for Julliard. His line delivery in the truck was excellent and it was one of the few moments when the movie reaches the kinds of emotions that it is striving for.

This will not be something I will ever need to see again. It wasn't something I needed to see now. It is not a bad movie, just a tired one and it is not really made for me. Someone out there will appreciate it, but they will be forty years younger and have one more X chromosome than I do.Chloë Grace Moretz  will go on to better things and this morose music will never assault my ears again. I'm not sure what the young actor in the film will do, to paraphrase the Mom in this movie he'll either get better or disappear.

What If

Daniel Radcliffe is the sad but wiseacre Wallace and Zoe Kazan is the cute as a button but unavailable Chantry in this whimsical romantic comedy adapted from a stage play named "Toothpaste and Cigars". This is a sort of "When Harry Met Sally" for the millennials. The question being, can a man and a woman be friends without the romantic complications? Since this is a romantic comedy the answer is inevitably no, butgetting to that answer is what makes the movie interesting.

The biggest weakness of the movie as a story is also it's biggest strength. The dialogue is laden with quick witted quips, references to poetry and literature and rapid fire verbal exchanges. In real life no one talks this way. Yes, people are funny, but they are not that consistently funny for an entire evening much less the whole of the relationship. It sometimes sounds like an extended sitcom with very clever writers having a great time putting funny words in the mouths of their characters. Listening to it can be charming but it will never pass the smell test when it comes to sincerity and honesty. If you wanted that though, you would just stay at home and have a conversation with your spouse, lover or friends. We go to the movies to be entertained  (at least for the most part) and we want the characters to sound interesting as they speak. These characters sound interesting. They say amusing things and say them in interesting ways. There is one quick scene where the two are playing ping pong and the path of the ball and it's velocity is not as sharp or quick as the exchanges between the two leads.

Wallace is one year out of a serious relationship break up that forced him to drop out of medical school. Chantry is in a five year live in relationship with Ben, a man she really does love. They meet at Allan's party, she is his cousin and he was the college room mate. They hit it off immediately and the level of attraction between them is visible on screen. The two actors are awkward, nice looking and they play the uncomfortable moments extremely well. Chantry finally accepts that maybe she and Wallace can be friends and gives him her number. He is more realistic and thinks that it would be wrong to pursue a relationship with her when she is involved with someone else. However, after a second cute meet sequence they toss caution to the wind and decide to be friends. When Wallace comes over to have dinner with her and Ben and her sister Dalia, things go hysterically wrong in one of the most amusing bits of slapstick I've seen this year.

The path the two take for the rest of the movie is pretty standard but it is littered with brilliant conversation. Allan counsels Wallace on his options and the paraphrasing of all the advice is too the point and funny. A secondary relationship between Allan and Nicole, a girl he met at the same party as earlier feels a lot like the Carrie Fisher/Bruno Kirby relationship in "When Harry Met Sally". They want Wallace to get off the stick and go for it with Chantry. Meanwhile, Chantry has to dissuade her girlfriends and sister from pursuing Wallace too strongly.  The mixed motives are part of the fun but also part of the cliche. Completely separate from all of this is the living situation Wallace is in, staying in his single sister's house and being something of a male role model for her eight year old son. When Wallace baby sits during his sister's date, he and his nephew do the exact opposite of what she told him to do, that includes watching the great "John Carpenter's: The Thing". Any movie that has that as a reference and also has the balls to use "The Princess Bride" in the way it is used here has something going for it.

All of the actors do a great job and the movie looks nice. There is a soundtrack filled with contemporary music that seems to be standard for modern love stories. There are plenty of laughs and you will discover an actress that is unconventionally pretty and should have big things in store for her. Radcliffe shows that he is not just the boy who lived but can be a romantic lead in the quirky off center way that most romances now take. They have not reinvented the wheel here, they have just managed to make go around one more time quite pleasantly. You probably won't remember much about the movie but you will enjoy the hundred minutes yo spent watching it.

The Giver

Most films with a dystopian theme follow an action based plot. The list of such films is a long one, from "Planet of the Apes" to "The Hunger Games", the central figures in these stories confront a world that is vastly different than our own and they fight against it in some way. "The Giver" has the same concept but there is a very different plotline and purpose. In "The Hunger Games" the focus is on a competition and most of the second half involves a battle to the death with high amounts of tension. "Logan's Run" is a chase movie that switches the role of the purser to that of the pursued. There are a few action beats in "The Giver" and there is a chase, but all of that takes place near the end of the picture and it is an attempt to resolve the quandary faced by the society, it is not really the reason the picture exists. This story is about an idea. It asks us to consider questions of morality and face the issue of what it means to be free.

Freedom from want, from pain, from loss are all appealing utopian principles. The notion that everyone would be treated equitably and that the inconvenience of life changing decision making would be out of our hands might seem a good one. Who would not want to live in a world where all are treated politely and they have their needs provided for them? The trouble with all utopian visions is that they come at a cost and that cost is likely to be unacceptable when viewed from a different angle. Brenton Thwaites is a young Australian actor who has the lead role in the story. He is Jonas, a newly minted eighteen year old who is given a special job in the community that he lives in. This position is a once in a generation role that requires a great deal of strength to handle. The information that he will be responsible for is critical to the society that he lives in but it is also potentially devastating. Jonas will be trained in his role by a counterpart, an elder of the community who has held the position that he is embarking on. The title role is played by Jeff Bridges.

Between the two actors, there has to be an effective bond to make the emotions of the story resonate. Thwaites is eager and innocent, Bridges is tired and emotionally burned out. When we buy into the concept of the story, it is easy to understand the two roles. The nearly exhausted candle needs to be replaced with a fresher, more sturdy model. The difficulty comes in whether or not we should even keep functioning under this system. As Jonas learns more, sees more and feels more about the world that preceded the community he lives in, he questions the sacrifice that his world has made to have the bucolic existence it enjoys. The pain of discovering his "fathers" true role in the society and the complete lack of moral awareness that Jonas himself now has becomes the trigger for the climax of the film. Before all of this happens however, a long series of possibilities, missed opportunities and dysfunctional living conditions has to be revealed.

Phillipe Noyce is the director of this film. I first knew who he was from the 1989 thriller "Dead Calm". He directed the Harrison Ford versions of the Tom Clancy stories. He has been an effective story teller but not a particularly distinctive visualist. With this movie I think he has stepped outside of his comfort zone and created a strong visual style to accompany the storyline. This movie borrows from "Pleasantville" in a pretty direct way but not in a manner that seems cheap or obvious. The black and white cinematography that dominates the majority of the story is subdued. You might not even realize the film is in black and white until small pieces of color start to intrude. Although it is a Science Fiction story with a fully realized alternative universe, the special effects and set design are also subtle, which makes the film feel more like a story about ideas than an action film.

Meryl Streep is the Chief Elder of the community. She might be seen as the villain but she is simply playing the role her character has in the community. None of the members of the community except fore The Giver and Jonas, have any conception of how the world they live in is twisted. Jonas manages to connect in an emotional way with two friends. Those two friends become important to the plot as they are given the chance to peek behind the communities protective skirts and at least vaguely perceive some of the emptiness that their lives have. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are Jonas parents. They have a concerned and supportive attitude toward Jonas but the real emotions that a parent might be expected to have are effectively masked by the role relationship they are expected to play in the community. Even toward the climax, the conflict between Jonas and the world he lives in is not a personalized one but rather one of ideas. The only time the film falls more into the action style conflict cliche is when The Giver and The Elders at the end are participating in a ritual to "release" Jonas romantic interest from the community. The Giver seems to be arguing and resiting in a courtroom style setting, even though that is not the purpose of the scene.

Singer Taylor Swift has a brief role in the film and it provides some context to why The Giver himself feels that a change in the order of things is needed. This is a thought provoking story that was a young adult novel from twenty years ago. The book has been used in thousands of classes since then and the story may seem old hat to the current generation but I never read it and it was refreshing and very inspiring. My expectations for the film were moderate but the execution and the story make this one of the films from the summer that deserve to be remembered past the opening weekend. 

Steven Spielberg Blogathon: Directing Actors

Steven Spielberg is rightly credited with being the most effective visualizer of stories working in the last forty years. He took a liability like a non-functioning mechanical shark and managed to create an extremely visceral film out of it. That "Jaws" works is largely a function of his ability to feel how a movie will play to an audience. He took the extra step when making that film, of shooting additional material in the pool of one of his collaborators, to get the audience reaction right. The opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a litany of visual and emotional elements from the Saturday serialized films of the Golden Age, but updated and intensified as only Spielberg has been able to manage. The brutality and honesty of the first half hour of "Saving Private Ryan" is a testament to being able to connect with an audience's emotions in the strongest possible ways. Plenty of horror films have been as graphic and disturbing, but none have carried the power of those horrifying images the way that this World War II film managed to do.

Many have criticized his sentimentality in visual language. "Warhorse" although successful has been savaged by some for the Spielberg palate of color, lighting and cinematography. Had the film been made by someone other than Spielberg, it would be seen as a piece of artistic achievement rather than a three handkerchief cash grab. Some pretty picky elements of "War of the Worlds" earned that film scorn from some, even as it delivers the kind of frenzied panic and fear that audiences had not experienced since "Jaws" thirty years before it. He was hammered again for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" for letting CGI and Shia LeBeof come between the fans of the series and the story being told. The same creative elements in "Minority Report", at least the visual ones, become a source of strife in other pictures. Like all artists, he cannot please every audience every time. There is one skill that he has managed to use consistently, without the same kind of criticism his visualization of a story sometimes gets. That talent is the directing of actors to excellence on the screen. Some of the finest performances over the last four decades have come from actors working with Steven Spielberg.

It is true that a talented actor can pull the weight of a movie on their shoulders and carry it for the audience, but they can only do that with a supportive director who knows what the story counts on. With young actors or inexperienced film actors, the role of the director is even more important. George Lucas has a great instinct for what looks good on screen. He can tell a story that will pull the audience in most of the time, but he does not seem to have the right touch with actors in the same way that Spielberg does. Martin Scorsese develops a troop of actors to work with and as they tune into him, they become more and more reflective of his sensibility. Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DeCaprio have worked with Scorsese on multiple projects. Spielberg has only one actor that he has featured in more than three films (Unless you are pretending that Crystal Skull does not exist). People may not realize it but Tom Hanks has only been directed by Spielberg three times in a starring part. To get a great performance out of a great actor is still difficult. There are plenty of pairings that did not pan out, but Spielberg manages to get actors in the right frame of mind, to give them the space to do their best work or maybe he just exerts enough control to stifle the actors excesses.

Casting and script are part of the process as well. I don't mean to suggest that Spielberg can magically turn a marginal performer into an Olivier, but he can make sure that the right actor is in the part and that their strengths are played to. A good example is Christopher Walken.
Walken is an actor loved for his eccentricities and quirks in delivery. He may be the most imitated actor around because his voice and mannerisms are so distinctive and therefore more easy to imitate. In "Catch Me If You Can" he gives an Academy Award nominated performance that is largely successful because the usual quirks are held to a minimum. Instead of being a cartoon, which is how he is usually used in movies, Walken is given a chance to be a real human being. His flaws are not overplayed and the natural way in which he interacts with the other performers is far different than, oh let's say, his three minutes in "Pulp Fiction". Spielberg knows what he wants from his actors and it appears from the product that he knows how to get it.

He is perhaps best known as a director of actors for his work with children. The main child performances in "E.T." are the source of this reputation. Henry Thomas is the lead, and he carries the movie, but he could not have done it without the help of a patient director. I recently watched Thomas's next film, "Cloak and Dagger" and while he is a good screen presence, he lacks the depth and naturalness that came from working with a knowledgeable actors director. It had to have helped the kids immensely to have shot the film in continuity so the kids always knew where they were in the story for their performances.  Christian Bale delivers an amazing child performance in "Empire of the Sun". Both of these young men are talented performers but it took Bale almost twenty more years to break thorough as a widely recognized acting powerhouse. Both of these films depend on the child performer to carry the picture. Unless you are cast because you are cute, hot or a well known commodity, it is hard to imagine a kid without a strong director being able to hold an audience in their hands.  
His one obvious failure in this area was with "Hook" which was filled with so many kids that most of them don't get a chance to have personality and those that do are burdened with the broadest kinds of direction possible. Maybe Charlie Korsmo was adequate in his role but the other kids ran over Spielberg with their quirks. On the other hand, the kids in "Jurassic Park" are excellent, and you will believe Haley Joel Osment is an android.

Spielberg has had the advantage of working with many established stars but it is the first time or novice performers that he has been able to get the most out of. First time stars Oprah Winfrey, Whoopie Goldberg, and journeyman actress Margaret Avery were nominated for the Academy Award in their first major roles. Directors get credit for so many things on the set that they may have little input on but the one thing they have the most control over is the casting and performance of the actors. Sometimes the director does get lucky. In the movie "Lincoln", Spielberg had had his heart set on Liam Neeson for the title role at first, but as time went on, minor differences emerged in how the two saw the character being portrayed. After the project was repeatedly put on hold Nesson bowed out. I have no doubt that he would have given a towering performance but when Daniel Day-Lewis is your fallback casting, and he is driven to make the character come to life, fortune has smiled on you.
I've not read enough to know how important Spielberg was to Day-Lewis' performance, but I do know they kept late hours and shared information and inspiration even in the middle of the night. It is an interesting piece of trivia to note that of the dozen actors Spielberg directed to Academy nominations, Daniel Day-Lewis is the only one to have actually won.

Tom Cruise made two appearances in Spielberg films as distraught fathers. He has to sell the characters demons and weaknesses in both films while also handling an incredibly physical performance in front of green screens and doing stunt work. If you compare his performances in "Minority Report" and "War of the Worlds" to other roles in action films, there is a level of quality to those performances that certainly was enhanced by working with Spielberg. Nothing in "Oblivion" comes close to the anguish that Cruise displays when confronting the pre-crime scenario that John Anderson goes through as he confronts the man he believes took his child. Because this performance is buried in an action film it is easy to overlook the quality of work that the two of them achieved here.

 While all three leads in the movie "Jaws" were excellent, there are two performances that stand out. The flashy role and the greatest match of actor to part I can think of is the pairing of Robert Shaw with the character Quint. At least four sets of hands were on the script for the famous monologue, Spielberg knew what words mattered and enhanced the performance with camera work and sound design that makes that moment one of the essential film scenes ever.  The second performance is one that is often overlooked, Roy Scheider as Chief Brody is subtle and sometimes heartbreaking. Spielberg knows how long to let some of those moments linger in time. The dinner table scene is a wonderful example of the creativity that can come out when the director and the actor work together.

" an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”--Steven Spielberg