Friday, April 28, 2017
I had a Friday Afternoon free, my daughter was home and suggested we see a film. I checked Flixter to see what was new and available. "The Circle" had lousy ratings, but that does not always discourage me. "How to be a Latin Lover", no, that's not going to happen. Then I saw this, a movie that I'd never heard of but which featured a World War Two Setting, the making of a film, and it had Bill Nighy in it. Why the hell was I not already at the theater? Twenty minutes later we were, and boy am I glad I happened across this.
This film went from not even being a blip on my radar to being my favorite film of the year so far. It has many old fashioned elements so it may not seem like a film modern audiences will flock to, but they should . The old fashioned story telling, character development and plot are just the ticket for people who want a movie that does not feature super heroes( at least until next week), car chases, and hipper than thou irony which is unearned. This film has a romance, a war to win, a movie to make, and enough heartbreak to last for the summer. People who love movies will appreciate the title of the book it is based on and it will make the current title make more sense. ["Their Finest Hour...and a half"].
In the months after Great Britain was forced to retreat from the continent, and stood alone against the monstrosity of the Third Reich, it's morale was battered. The blitz was taking place and Londoners were forced into shelters if they were lucky, and dug out of the ruble if they were not. A young woman, who did a cartoon for a local paper, gets tapped to assist with the script of War Time propaganda films. As the head writer terms it, "the slop" you know, women's dialogue. The film makers are struggling to find the right tone for the informational films that are shown between the regular features. A Hungarian producer, anxious to make a great film to aid the war effort comes across a story that might be just the thing to lift up a beleaguered population.
Gemma Arterton, Miss Strawberry Fields herself, plays Catrin Cole, a woman struggling to stay with her artist husband in London during the bombings, so happy to have some work to pay the rent. While it is a little quick to go from punching up lines in a PSA to co-writing a script for a major production, it is a lot more believable than the old line of going out as an understudy but coming back as a star. The film gives us glimpses of how she might re-write dialogue to be more appealing to a female audience, and sometimes change the tone of what is going on. Sam Claflin plays her sexist boss, the main writer of the film. Their story line is full of ups and downs that seem natural in the wartime circumstances and the date at which the story is set. Sexual politics and gender warfare have existed a long time before the sixties and here is a case where it breaks out at just the right time.
Cast as an aging matinee idol of a series of disposable detective thriller, Bill Nighy is an actor who reluctantly is cast in a part that is perfect for him. The way in which it all comes about is also a part of the background of the film. With a name like Ambrose Hilliard, you almost don't need the character to have an actor to go with the part, but Nighy fills the movie with some great moments of pathos as well as humor. My daughter thought we were going to see a comedy, and we did, it's just that it's a human comedy, and that includes the sad with the happy. The funny bits are all great, but Nighy really shines in two dramatic sequence. In one, he joins the film crew and cast in singing old homilies that bring the group together like music must have done during war time. Later he has a few minutes of philosophy to share that helps propel the movie to the ending that it really does deserve.
The randomness of destruction and the capriciousness of the heart are subjects of the movie as well. I know the Brits must have wondered what their American cousins were doing on the sidelines during this period. They soldiered on as best they could, with tragedy a moment away or a step around the corner. When the film making process is shown on screen, we get some nice behind the scenes laughs, but when the completed film is revealed in bits, I dare anyone to be able to keep a dry eye. If this film had really been made, we might have joined the war effort before Pearl Harbor. Sure it was propaganda, but it probably would have worked like gangbusters.
This movie had no ads, promos, billboards or other marketing to sell it, at least here in the states. That is an absolute shame. With the Christopher Nolan film "Dunkirk" ready to screen this summer, this is a perfect appetizer. The story of the rescue of British soldiers is a key ingredient in this picture. We are spared the impact that the war had on individual soldiers but we get a good dose of what it did to folks on the home-front with this movie. Oh, and just in case you are not sold on the film yet, Jeremy Irons pops in for about three minutes of perfection, and makes you remember how great he is in almost everything he does.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
I am a guest on this great podcast with Kristen Lopez and Todd Liebenow. We talk Disney News, discuss the Cartoon Short "Who Killed Cock Robin?" and worship at the alter of Pam Grier. Listen in, I think you will really enjoy it.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
There is something just great about a movie set in a single claustrophobic location, filled with criminals. "Reservoir Dogs" by Quentin Tarantino served as his introduction to the world. The colorful characters and bantering dialogue were a swift kick in the pants to movie fans who had become jaded by traditional action thrillers. Just a couple of years ago, he plagiarized himself with another location bound crime film, this one set in the old west, "The Hateful Eight". While he has played with the idea of a single location, both of those films involve substantial flashback stories that take us from the set spot to other locations during the run time of the movie. "Free Fire" does not do any such thing. Everyone arrives at the location, and then the rest of the film takes place exclusively in those confines.
This is basically a criminal deal gone bad, that ends up in a shootout. It sounds very basic and from the perspective of story, it is. There are however a few tweaks that director Ben Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump throw into the concoction. For instance, the spark that lights the already intense situation has nothing to do with the deal. By coincidence, a couple of hotheads with a beef are in the two factions and tempers flare around a bunch of volatile people. Almost all of the characters are given some distinctive personality quirks in a short set up, and as a result we know that even when they are allied with another person, their inclination is likely to be to shoot.
Like most films featuring criminal activity, the parties are not entirely reliable. There are a number of double crosses and switches of loyalty. When bullets start to fly, often the direction you point your gun in is largely determined by where a previous shot came from. Early on, one character quizzes another, trying to reassure themselves, "You're not FBI are you?" "No. I'm IFM, In it For Myself." By the midway point of the film, pretty much everyone has joined the same group.
The stars of the film are Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Academy Award Winner Brie Larson. Larson plays Justine, a go between for the IRA group that wants some weapons, and the black-marketeers that are willing to supply them. Her part here makes a little more sense than her recent turn as a photo journalist in "Kong: Skull Island", but she basically serves the same purpose, to be the sole representative of her gender with a part in the story. The humor that is the main selling point of this film is enhanced by her presence as a distraction to the others and an opportunity to use some lines of dialogue to promote gender equity in a more unusual way. Hammer is the cooler than thou broker who always has a bon mot to drop. Sometimes he insults the players, often he is incredulously commenting on the circumstances. Copley is the ace in the hole for the movie. His first appearance provokes laughter as his suit is so clearly a 70s cut and his hair and other styling reek of the decade. His odd South African accent, combined with a belligerent manner and a chip on his shoulder make for a great character that you can just tell will be the source of all kinds of amusement.
I should mention two other scene stealers as they are the ones who lite the fuse and just won"t let it burn out during the story. Sam Riley is a weaselly junkie, brought in on the job simply to load weapons and act as back up muscle. Everybody in this movie kicks his ass to some degree or another. Jack Reynor, who was the standout supporting character of the older brother in "Sing Street" last year, adds another great character role as a counter part local thug who has a surprise connection to the other character. Testosterone induced violence, flavored with a heavy dose of grim humor, and a seemingly endless supply of ammo, makes this film sing as well.
Our attendance last night was at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, where there are frequent guest appearances to promote a film. Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer were there last night and will return this evening to talk about some of the behind the scenes stories of the film. Both men were avuncular raconteurs who regaled us with amusing anecdotes about hair, wardrobe and the use of fire on set. The half hour was fun but not particularly deep. Let's face it the movie isn't deep, it is just entertaining as were the two stars.
|After the Q and A.|
|Costume Display in the Arclight Lobby|
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Sunday mornings in Hollywood are a quiet time most weeks, but when the TCM Film Festival is in town, the pace gets quicker on the last day and it starts early.
Cock of the Air (1931)This was a Howard Hughes production and it was pre-code so it is definitely a little racy for the time. Although mild by today's standards, this film must have had tongues wagging with it's story of a flirtatious aviator and a French Opera singer. The fact that the Opera singer is given a medal for moving away from Paris, where she is a distraction to too many officers, let's you know that this is not a chaste figure making a sacrifice for her country.
The dialogue is full of innuendo and then there are the stars costumes. They leave little of her decolletage to the imagination. The Hayes office forced 12 minutes of cuts in the film and it was thought that they were gone for good but a decade ago, the Motion Picture Academy discovered an uncensored print that lacked a soundtrack. Using the existing material and a copy of the script, four actors dub in the lines from the scenes that were previously cut. In the screening we saw, the sections that had been cut were identifiable by an icon on the screen that came and went as the story played out.
It was a fascinating experience to see the restored film in excellent shape, but even more so with the "lost" material reinserted and the censors cuts clearly indicated.
The film has a contentious romance at it's heart but there is also a lot of humor built into the story. There is not really much in the way of battle action but there are a few flying scenes and the bedroom farce sections will keep you in stitches.
Lured (1947)It's completely normal to think of Lucille Ball as a television star. That is where she ultimately made her biggest mark, but she also starred in over 70 features and she was sometimes thought of as the Queen of the Bs of her era. This film is a noir inspired melodrama featuring a serial killer, dance hall girls, the personal columns and George Sanders. It is directed by 50s favorite Douglas Sirk, but features the glorious black and white of the late 40s noir films rather than the technicolor of "Magnificent Obsession" or "All that Heaven Allows".
Lucy is an American actress, stranded in London trying to make ends meet as a hostess in a dancehall. Her friend disappears and Scotland yard uses her to try and bait a serial killer who has been sending poetry inspired by a disturbed bard. It is interesting to see that the procedural of using a profile of a killer has been around a lot longer than "The Silence of the Lambs". Working as a police undercover agent, Ball encounters suspects and falls in love with the stylish and snobby George Sanders. Sanders turns out to be a suspect as well. complicating the romance. The use of the personal ads and the cop falling for a suspect reminds me of the Al Pacino movie, "Sea of Love".
For a film that ultimately relies on suspense, there is a lot of humor and fluff. Balancing a romance with a serial killer story is awkward. Boris Karloff is another suspect, and at first he is played as a bit of a comic character but it does turn dark pretty quickly. I know that I have seen Cedric Hardwicke in movies before, but it is only days later that I realized he played the Pharo in "The Ten Commandments", I should have made that connection sooner. Charles Couburn as the head of Scotland Yard's team investigating the murders, makes no attempt to do an English accent, he gets by on his general charm and old man wisdom. Alan Napier was in "The Court Jester" yesterday and interestingly enough is Detective Gordon in this movie. I say interesting because that's one step away from a part that he did not have in his most famous role. He was Alfred in the 1960s Batman, and there he just answered the"bat phone" when Commissioner Gordon called.
Boris Karloff's daughter Sara was in attendee and she told a few stories about her father who was featured in this film.
Postcards From the Edge (1990)Just as Robert Osborne's death hung over the Festival which was dedicated to him, the double whammy of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was also heavy on many film lovers minds. There were two films being screened to honor the Mother/Daughter tandem that we lost in December. "Singin' in the Rain" was in the big house at Grauman's but we had been to a screening in January so chose instead to see the Roman à clef "Postcards from the Edge", screenplay by Carrie Fisher. Although Fisher denied that it was based on her relationship with her own mother, the parallels are to obvious to ignore.
Meryl Streep first sang on screen not in "Mama Mia" or "Into the Woods" or "Ricki and the Flash", but rather in this film, where she plays the drug abusing actress daughter of a famous old time Hollywood singer Actress, played by Shirley MacLaine. There are a lot of Hollywood inside jokes, including a running story line concern the casual mating behaviors of people in the film business. The movie is littered with a variety of well known actors in brief parts including Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfess, Dennis Quaid, and in one last minor role before she broke out into stardom later in this year Annette Bening.
I can't say that there is a strong narrative but I can say that the two leads were great in their parts. You can see under the brash enthusiasm of MacLaine's character to her more vulnerable parts. As usual, Streep is excellent and she is called on to do several district moods. She plays it straight when acting in a not very good film, she is angry as the casual lover betrayed by her own casualness, and she is frightened by the stupidity of her own choices when it comes to drug use. I thought her best moments were with Director Hackman as he tries to be honest with her and rescue her career at the same time.
This was the second Mike Nichols film we saw at the festival. It is not a work as assured and ground breaking as "The Graduate" but it was typical of the kinds of comedic dramas he would specialize in most of his later career.
What's Up Doc? (1972)We left the screening of "Postcards" before the guests, Todd Fisher and Richard Dreyfess came out, because scheduling was tight and we wanted to get in to see this second Peter Bogdanovich film. Amanda had seen the bleak but moving "Last Picture Show" the day before, and this was an opportunity to cut loose and see what else he can do. From one year to the next it is hard to imagine a bigger shift in tone that this revival of the screwball comedy, featuring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal.
Streisand has the role that in the 1930s would have been played by Katherine Hepburn or in the 1940s by Barbara Stanwyk. She is a slightly nutty misfit with a huge pool of knowledge on the tip of her tongue because she has been thrown out of so many colleges and so many majors. She latches onto O'Neal as a cute professor of Musicology with an interesting theory of music and rocks. His fiance introduces us to Madeline Kahn, in her first film role where she steals the whole picture. Kahn is the dowdy and dominating woman that runs the life of the absent minded O'Neal and Streisand is jsut the ticket to relieve him of that burden.
Throw in four identical suitcases with stolen jewellery, secret government information, rock specimens and clothes and underwear and you are all set for the kind of slapstick and mistaken identity that made those films of an earlier era so fun. There is literally a gag with people going in and out of hotel room doors that looks like it could have been cribbed from a Marx Brothers film. Like most of those older films, this movie has scene stealing character actors and wild shifts in momentum. The last section of the movie features an astounding chase through the streets of San Francisco, on foot, bike and in cars. "Bullit" looks simple by comparison.
Speedy (1928)We finished the festival with a silent film from Harold Lloyd. Along with Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd is one of the cornerstones of not just silent films but comedy films specifically. This version of the film is apparently widely available but this screening had something extra special to recommend it. It was to be accompanied by a live orchestra playing original music for the film.
The Alloy Orchestra is really a four piece ensemble and they follow the action closely throughout the film. Sprinkled in the score are familiar motifs relating to baseball and carnivals, which are both featured in the story. A feckless young man with great confidence, goes from job to job, trying to impress the parents of the girl he is in love with. His failure as a soda jerk or cab driver is incidental to the wild moments he encounters on the streets of New York and Coney Island.
The film narrative is slight but there are dozens of visual gags and the actors do a nice job playing sweethearts who are unaffected by the upheaval that surrounds them. In the end, the young man saves the day for his future father-in-law, but he ruins a suit and Babe Ruth's day along the way. Suzanne Lloyd, Harold's Granddaughter and keeper of his legacy was present to reminisce with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.
If you want to see what NYC looked like nearly a century ago, this movie will give you an extensive tour and make you long for the days when Coney Island served cotton candy in paper sacks.
Friday, April 14, 2017
So let's see if we can get the whole day in on one post rather than spreading it out over several. Saturday is always a densely packed day at the TCMFF. It begins with one of the movies I treasure from my nostalgia bank. A comedy takeoff on my favorite film.
The Court Jester
The movie looks great on the big screen and this is one of the reasons I chose to see a movie I practically know by heart, because I have never seen it it a theater. The color bursts forth in amazing hues and the costumes look lush and detailed. The opening number with Kaye pretending to be The Black Fox and dancing with miniature versions of himself was a riot. The Foxes outfit was reproduced a dozen times for the diminutive actors playing the acrobatic troop that Hawkins once worked with. Captain Jean shows up in a similar outfit, tailored for a woman and with a slightly different color. This is the start of the little details that make a big screen viewing extra special.
The audience was full and host Illeana Douglas and guest Fred Willard shared their stories about seeing the film and loving Danny Kaye. Outside in line for the next film, I encountered a woman who had a myriad of tattoos, but her most recent ones were the focus of my attention. If you look closely you will see here on the wrist a Vessel with a Pestle, a Chalice from the Palace, and a Flagon with the figure of a dragon. She definitely is a fan. My fandom will not go so far as to paint my body, but I do have a full post on the film here. I think you will find the review and story there worth your trip.
The Awful TruthThis was a last minute call for me. I'd originally planned on seeing "The Last Picture Show" with director Peter Bogdonovicth , but I decided that since I'd seen it only a month earlier, I'd look for
This was a chance for me to sit with some of the TCM Party People I know from on-line. Kellee Pratt and her husband Gary were there as was Aurora from Citizen Screen. I saved a seat for my local blogging buddy Michael, and there were a dozen others from the group around us as well. Some of those folks were introduced to me and some were not but all of the group was friendly and full of anticipation. The excitement was completely understandable because this movie is a delight. As with most screwball films, the premise is a little far fetched and convoluted but once you accept that, everything falls into place. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married couple who have some secrets that they keep from one another but they appear to be a little innocuous. Grant however lets his suspicions get the best of him and they pursue a divorce that neither of them really wants.
Ralph Bellamy plays the third wheel love interest who complicates the couples reunion. This is a part that he most have done in films a dozen times, including "His Girl Friday" where again his romantic proclivities are thwarted by Cary Grant. I'd just seen Grant in "North By Northwest" a few days ago, and It is amazing how great his range was. The picture at the top of this post was taken by TCM of the line for the film. If you look closely, you will see me giving the "Fight On" victory salute of my Trojan Family.
Much of that credit belongs to the director Carl Reiner, who along with star and screenwriter Steve Martin, put together a series of loose sketches (much like they had done throughout their careers) to make a real movie. Reiner was present before the screening for a book signing that went on quite a while and caused a pretty big delay in the schedule. I was worried I'd not make it in time to get to the next film where I was scheduled to reconnect with Amanda.
Reiner was much like Mel Brooks was, full of stories and very funny. He does digress a bit into some political themes that are prevalent these days. One of the reasons I want to go to the festival is to get away from that subject matter and it was a little annoying. I was glad when he got the subject off his chest and went back to the film and his admiration of Steve Martin. Host Ben Mankiewicz, while interviewing him had a hard time understanding the baseball cap he had handy. The information that Reiner is not a Colorado Rockies fan, lead to realization that the hat logo had more to do with the guest than baseball. I'll bet you figure it out faster than Ben did.
I was Mr. Reiner last year at the TCM FF talking about "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid". At age 95, he has not lost his wit or enthusiasm for working. Apparently he has two other books coming out this year as well.
Best In Show
Since the theme of the festival was comedy, it makes sense to have some of the funniest movies around included in your program. Since the Festival makes a great effort to add value to the screenings with special guests, this film really paid in spades because there were four actors from the film present to share some stories.
John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Jim Piddock sat down front and spoke of the process that is used to put these ensemble films together and they reminisced about the making of the film. Poor Bob Balaban had such a sore throat that he could not speak, but he participated with notes that the host or one of the co-stars would read. It seems appropriate that he was the one with a wing down since it was also true when they made the film. He had a large footbrace on his leg the whole time that they were shooting and had to have his slacks altered so that he could hide the fact but still wear the piece. Piddock recalled how difficult it was to play straight man to Willard. He also noted that all of their work was basically done in an afternoon and that there were no dogs present at the location where they shot.
We had an interesting encounter with a woman in line for the next movie. She had been in the screeing with us and she and her friend were discussing the film while we waited to get back into the main Chinese theater. She hated the film, and I think she represents many of the fans who would have questioned it's inclusion. However if you judge by the volume of laughter in the room and it's frequency, the movie was a success with most of the crowd.
The Simon and Garfunkel songs that are littered throughout the story are part of the soundtrack of we baby boomers lives. The opening sequence with Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin, being moved without any effort on his part by the people conveyor at LAX, with the blank tile walls behind him, completely forecasts the characters story and ambivalence. Much has been written about the final shots and the tentative smiles and uncertainty on the actors faces, but if you ask me, this was the moment that Mike Nichols earned his Academy Award.
Screenwriter Buck Henry was the guest and his was one of the most interesting interviews of the weekend. Mr. Henry is eighty seven years old and not quite as spry as Carl Reiner or his old collaborator Mel Brooks. He was in fact in a wheelchair, but he did not appear to be infirm. As he was interviewed, there were times when he seemed indifferent to or confused by the questions, but just when you thought he was out of it, he usually made an insightful comment or quip, and I began to think he was really just toying with us.
The fact that Robert Redford walked away from the part as Nichols continued to try and interest him in it might be well known. Henry added to the story however by explaining that Redford's reason given to the director was simple, he didn't get it. He also shared a piece of info that I was unaware of , Murray Hamilton was a replacement for an actor who Nichols let go. The actor was very capable but Nichols simply did not think he could play "rich". The actor was Gene Hackman, perhaps my very favorite actor ever. To me the bigger question was how he could play older. Hackman and Hoffman are pretty close to the same age and they shared rooms together at one point. Hackman moved on to "Bonnie and Clyde" which was not at all a bad trade for him.
The best part of the film came in the car on the ride home that night. I had the kind of discussion with my daughter that film fans always want to have. We had insights and disagreements and intelligent comments to make about a movie that inspired us. She has asked me several times what my favorite part of the festival was. I've not said it before but I will put it in writing right here. My favorite thing about this years TCM Film Festival was the forty minute ride home that night, talking to her about a great movie.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
High Anxiety is a pastiche of Hitchcock films that touches on several more than a dozen of the master's works or characters. I've heard it said that it is one of his lesser accomplishments, but since the story and jokes have to borrow from so many well known sources to begin with, it is a real achievement that it feels like a regular film and not a parody like one of the Airplane! or Naked Gun films.
The cast of this movie was packed with the funniest of actors from the 1970s. Madeline Kahn should have a statute somewhere to commemorate the day she entered our motion picture world. Her rendition of Hitch's icy blonde is spot on. Cloris Leachman has no vanity to serve when it comes to getting the laughs. He marble mouthed mustached nurse, is a nightmare version of the nightmare that was Mrs. Danvers seventy years ago. Harvey Korman was funny in almost everything he did and his fussy, emasculated psychiatrist is a character that can safely sit next to his role in Blazing Saddles.
Finally, Mel Brooks turns in a wonderful comedic performance as a psychiatrist with a major hang up that probably accounts for why he chose the profession in the first place. Brooks looks great in 1977, and could pull off a leading man role without having a matinee star like face. The two high points of the film for him are the shower scene where he effectively stands in for Janet leigh, and a musical turn at the piano bar. Brooks sells the title song as if it were part of the Great American Songbook, but also as a comic tune that sets the stage for events in the movie. The theme of this years Festival was Comedy, and this was one of the many films I saw that had the audience reeling. Of course they did get a big appitiezer to start the meal off with.