Wednesday, May 4, 2016

TCM FF: 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone

This was a wonderful program featuring 7 shorts from the start of the Vitaphone era, 1926-1931. I neglected to take notes and write down the names of each of the shorts, if you were there and have that list please share them here. I will try to remember a few of the performers featured in the program.

The Vitaphone process involved recording of sound to synchronize with pictures. The system as described by Ron Hutchinson, from The Vitaphone Project, used 16" discs that were powered by the same motor that drove the film projector. That way the synchronization would be much more effective than other systems had used. Mr. Hutchinson described how there are several hundred missing shorts. Some they have film for but no soundtrack and some they have the discs for but no film. The Project has about 150 complete shorts, so we saw a pretty solid selection of the groups work.

Most of the performers were vaudeville stars and they did their act for 10 minutes on a studio set so the material could be recorded. Since the act was designed to be on a stage in front of a live audience, there are not any optical effects and the staging is very basic. Also, since one of the studios of Vitaphone was in New York, they featured performers from the era that would be fairly specialized. Molly Picon for instance did a Yiddish humor presentation that involved two sets, a drawing room and an alley in a tenement building. That alley was the most elaborate staging I remember seeing. George Burns and Gracie Allen simply did their shtick in a drawing room set. Al Shaw and Sam Lee just stand in the same spot in "The Beau Brummels", and slay the audience with their understated mannerisms.

Baby Rose Marie, the Child Wonder belts out several songs with adult flair and brash confidence. I did not realize until I did some background research that this was the same Rose Marie that I knew from the Dick Van Dyke show. She was a hoot because that voice and charisma coming from a child was just so incongruous as to be shocking. It was a very entertaining few minutes.

There were two or three other performers that also entertained but their styles would probably be lost on most modern audiences. One woman sang in impressions of performers from the time, including Mae West and Fanny Brice. Another couple sang a duet while at a piano and all kinds of insanity takes place around them.

Ron Hutchinson's slide presentation to start the program provided an excellent historical context and was entertaining in it's own right.

When I looked at the Festival Gallery posted on the TCM Festival Web Site, I was surprised to  see that I made it into the portfolio. There is an audience shot of this presentation and there I am enjoying the experience from my seat. So here's a screen shot of that moment for you.

I also got to say Hello to my Facebook friend, blogger Will McKinley right after the program. we didn't speak for long but it's great to have a non-virtual moment with someone you know and admire.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

TCM FF: The Conversation

OK, I'm going to out myself as an old man right now. As Steven Spielberg is to my kids and most of the movie going generation after, Francis Ford Coppola was to my generation. He was the inspiration for my movie mania in the 1970s. He is responsible in whole or part for five Best Picture nominees including three winners in that category. Getting a chance to hear him speak was number one on my list of "must dos" for the Festival. We were not at the front of the line but we were there almost two hours early to insure that we did get in. Mr. Coppola did not disappoint.

There was an elaborate description of the opening scene that reoccurs as the movie plays out. The idea that more is revealed or that the comments being made are interpreted in a different way as we get some more context is an early version of a technique used by later films like "Memento"and "Crash ". That Walter Murch had to be given a title that did not exist before [Sound Designer] because he technically could not work as an editor is a testament to the clash between the old ways that studios worked and the new styles that film makers like Coppola wanted to employ. The innovative use of sound in this film was the start of a specialized field. I wonder how Ben Burtt feels about this and if he would agree.

Gene Hackman is my favorite actor, and this was a terrific part that required him to be very different than in other roles. He is introspective and something of a schlep in his plastic raincoat and black rimmed glasses. He still has the volatility of Popeye Doyle, but it is tempered by a meekness that is surprising. When he tosses away his valise in frustration, that's a moment you expect, but when he turns around to go back and get it, that is not the performance choice that is typical, but it is reflective of the character. His passive-aggressive manner with his girlfriend is another indicator of Harry Caul's tentative ability to connect with others. We know that he is in over his head when he gets bested by a professional rival in a joke, but even more so when he falls into a honeypot that is designed to get access to materials he has held back from the assistant to his contracted employer. Robert Duvall is barely in the movie, in fact I think he is uncredited, but it is nice to see the two of them occupying the same film. 

The timeliness of this kind of surveillance is odd. The movie is more than forty years old but it is still relevant with the privacy invasions that we see today in politics, social media and National Security issues. Harry's paranoia is just a precursor to the kinds of intrusions that all of us are subject to today.




Saturday, April 30, 2016

TCM FF: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid




Steve Martin and Carl Reiner collaborated several times in the late 70s and 80s. Some of their films are silly and some are brilliantly realized concepts. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is both. It is an homage to the film noir of the 40s and 50s, with a Saturday Night Live sensibility. They took clips from more than a dozen classic films and mixed them with new material that was specially created for the movie. Martin rocketed to fame as a stand up comedian, and Reiner honed his comedy chops on improve and 50s variety shows. They seem to have been perfectly combined for this movie.
I saw this movie when it opened in May of 1982. I still have the promo button they passed out at preview screenings proclaiming that opening day was National Plaid Day. It remains very funny but the technology for merging older film stock with contemporary materials is much greater today than thirty four years ago. It still looks great but we are spoiled today by the digital wonders that come from progress. My guess is that Zelig and Forrest Gump would also suffer a little by comparison as each uses a similar technique to this film to tell it's story.
Rachel Ward was the "It" girl of the early 80s after starring in "The Thornbirds" on TV. She is the damsel in distress rather than a femme fatale here, which she would be two years later in the neo noir "Against All Odds".  Steve Martin gets to man handle her a couple of times for big laughs in the movie and she was indeed a beautiful woman, although she has no comic touch at all. Reiner himself appears as the butler, and maybe a little bit more, and he hams it up with Martin very effectively. Most of the costars are actually big names from past films who appear for a few brief seconds but are integrated so well into the movie that I hope their families are getting residuals. 
Mr. Reiner was honored after the film with a short assemblage of film clips put together by TCM and a nice introduction by actress/author Illeanna Douglas. She proceeded to try to interview him but Reiner was "On" and would not be contained. The 94 year old actor/writer/director/producer was full of jokes, side track stories and assorted foolishness. He was very entertaining but I was occasionally left wondering if he sometimes just lost track of what he was doing and went to a comfort zone.  The big house at the Chinese Theater was packed and the nearly 1000 of us lucky enough to get in gave him a standing ovation greeting that was very sincere. 
He talked about his days with the Dick Van Dyke show and was clearly quite proud of his accomplished children, including his director son Rob, his psychologist daughter and artist younger son. He shared George Burns ribald comment with the audience as to what sex was like in your 80s, after all they did work together on "Oh God", but he had to make sure there were no children in the audience. The analogy was disgusting and funny as heck.  He appears to be in good health and still very amusing with his improvisational comments during the interview.  It was an afternoon well spent and reminds me that I should be visiting my DVD collection more often, where "The Man with Two Brains" and "All of Me" reconnect him with Steve Martin. There are several other films to post about from Friday and Saturday, but I will have to catch up during the week, it's just too late when we are getting back to do any coherent writing.

TCM Film Festival: Shanghai Express




So this morning we went down early to the Festival headquarters in the Roosevelt Hotel and picked up our souvenir program. We had almost an hour to go before the start of the film we were planning on seeing so we sat down for a minute. I decided to check my social media feed and there was a tweet from one of my on line friends saying that the line for Shanghai Express was already around the corner from the theater. We hustled our tail ends over there and got queue cards just in time. The screening was packed.

I'm pretty sure I have a copy of this film on VHS somewhere in the garage, where it has lain dormant for more than 25 years. The screening today was a restoration that was stunning. The images are crisp and the black and white photography looked wonderful. There was an introduction by writer Jeremy xXxX, who wrote the Lawrence of Arabia book that came with my Bluray a couple of years ago. He introduced Josef Von Sternberg's son who shared some great stories about his father and his early career. The fact that as a boy he often sat on Marlene Dietrich's lap made him an expert in most of our eyes.

The movie is a drama set in civil war torn China, before the Japanese invasion a few years later. A motley crew of travelers is taking the train from Peking to Shanghai. On board are a British Military Doctor and a woman he once loved but abandoned, who now survives on the generosity of the men in her life. Their reunion is an awkward one since he has learned that she is the notorious"Shanghai Lily". There is a drama played out involving the revolutionary group and a hostage situation with the train. Warner Oland, who would go on to play Charlie Chan, is a mysterious figure with an unpleasant manner who figures into the story and he provides a great character for us to root against.

The movie is incredibly well assembled by the craftsmen of the day. The photography is gorgeous and the editing is very far advanced for 1932. The shots of the train as the passengers board and it tries to leave Peking are well staged and complex. The sounds may have been enhanced for the restoration, but they were spot on. The layering of the screen images during transitions is something that is hard to believe given the early era of the movie. The story is not a strong point but it holds the characters in place and gives us enough to care about the.Eugene Palette, who would go on to be Friar Tuck in my favorite film, is a gambler traveling on the train. He provides most of the comic relief in the film. Dietrich is spectacular as the fallen woman who still carries a torch for her lost love. The images from this film are iconic. Many of her costumes would be recognized by even casual film fans. There is a great shot with an overhead spotlight on her face that may be the defining image of her for most of the film community. If you have seen "Blazing Saddles", you will know where so many of Madeline Kahn's look from that movie came from. The frank references to her string of lovers, her slatterd morality and the obvious sexual references, all mark this as a pre-code film. It is racy stuff and it looks great. While the acting of some of the cast is old fashioned at times, the ideas hold up in the long run. This is one of the first great "directors" films. The choices in this movie are all Von Sternberg, and Dietrich is his greatest choice. I never thought I'd need to own this movie, but now I covet it and will look to add t stunning high definition version to my collection. Now a short nap and on to the next treasure.

Friday, April 29, 2016

TCM FF: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

After my Thursday evening class, I drove down to Hollywood to begin this years TCM Film Festival. I walked past the Chinese Theater, which was already dark in front but contained the opening night Gala screening of "All the President's Men". MY pass did not get me into that event but I was meeting my daughter across the street at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for a 9:30 screening of this somewhat creaky but for it's time groundbreaking social comedy/drama.

The show was delayed by the fact that fire alarms had cleared out several other earlier films, including the theater we were supposed to be in, which was showing "Dark Victory" at the time. The hundreds of film fans milling about would get back in to see the ends of their films before the next show started. We answered a trivia question for Social media producer Jeff and had our picture taken for his Instagram feed. After a longer wait in line we got into the theater for the film

Katherine Houghton who starred as Sidney Poitier's love interest in the film, was there to greet us with a short set of stories about the making of the film and the accidental way in which she was cast. Although she was Katherine Hepburn's niece, the real reason she ended up in the film was that Carl Reiner didn't think she was Jewish enough for the film he was making, and suggested that his friend Stanley Kramer should use her in this picture instead. 

Now a pretty dated film and one that modern audiences might see as condescending, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was controversial in it's day and also very entertaining. Amanda had not seen it before and she laughed quite a bit at the facial performances and timing of stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. It's also nostalgic to look at the city of San Francisco in the mid 60s to see what once was.

The film did not get done until after midnight and we got home at 1 am, so I'm a little toasty and the post here will be a bit thin. We are back on our way this morning to the Festival, but we have L.A. traffic to fight for a couple of hours sio not as much rest as I might have wanted. An exciting day is ahead but our long awaited weekend has arrived and there will be plenty of films to dive into with a little more analysis.

So long for now.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)




There are many in the film community who will deride the idea of remakes, live action or otherwise. It seems to suggest a shortage of creativity somewhere in the script department. I understand that feeling and I myself often hesitate to venture into a new version of an old film. You don't want to be disappointed or have your fond memory of the original besmirched. At the same time, if the movie touched you in some way the first time, there may be something to the subject that can affect you again, and why someone would not want that is hard for me to fathom. Of course it is also a money issue, but every movie is a money issue and remakes and sequels do not always guarantee results despite the hopes of producers everywhere. The new version of "The Jungle Book" is a live action remake of the last film that Disney himself oversaw. The animated version is a different take on Rudyard Kipling's stories from the 1942 version. So we have been here before. I was encouraged to go by word of mouth and several sources insisted that the 3D version is the one I wanted to see, so I used up all my accumulated AMC Stubbs points and pulled the trigger on a 3D IMAX (FAUXMAX) screening this morning.

It was a delightful experience and lived up to most of my hopes and it included a couple of surprises as well. The story closely follows the tale as it was told in the animated version, and here is the surprise, they even included a couple of songs. Admittedly the animals in this version are as animated as they were in 1967, but since they are photo-real, it was still a little bit of a shock that they spoke and sang. One of the best things that the film has going for it is the voice casting. Bill Murray as Baloo just about perfect. He is not a singer and the presentation of "The Bare Necessities" is not a show stopping moment but rather a casual way of telling us who the character is supposed to be. Similarly,  Christopher Walken as King Louie is no Louie Prima but he gives an engaging almost rap like delivery of his signature song. The film has humorous moments but it does not have the comic visuals that would go along with this sequence. Probably a good choice.

The most valuable addition to the story here is the integration of the wolf pack into the story. There is a code that they live by which becomes a turning point for the animals in the story, and the family development makes Mowgli much more a part of the pack. That also makes what happens in the climax of the film more satisfying and exciting. We got a little bit more about Mowgli's background and a clearer sense of what it is that drives the villain of the piece, Shere Khan. Idris Elba does a menacing voice that has authority, but it lacks the snarly sophistication that George Sanders brought to the role. Bagheera is voiced by Ben Kingsley and he is wise and loyal without the fussiness that Sebastian Cabot added. The changes are subtle ones and they seem to be designed to make this more "real" version of the story work for the universe that is created here.

Obviously, the real stars of the movie are the technicians who have brought the jungle to life. They make all the animals real, in spite of the size perspectives and physical details that have to be worked out. It is a complicated job and if you look at the credits for the film, you will see hundreds of names, most of whom I'm sure Director Jon Favreau never met, much less spoke to on a daily basis. There was an interesting location id in the final credits saying the film was shot entirely in the City of Los Angeles. Guns and Roses may think of it as the jungle, but the closest it comes in looks are some bad neighborhoods, there are no cliffs, rivers, or lush Savannah anywhere around here, this was all created in the computer.

Young Neel Seethi is the star of the film. He is credible in the action sequences but a little stiff in the dramatic scenes. Child actors are tough, they have great presence sometimes but they may have limited range at their young age and I think that this is the case here. The action scene at the end is pretty spectacular, although there are several scenes where the visuals impress, including a mudslide/stampede sequence. The fire effects and the the trees in the last action scene are rendered in a way that makes the #D investment worth the price, but there were dozens of shots like that throughout the film, so I will add my voice to those who say go 3D. Stick around for the credits and you get Scarlett Johanson's version of "Trust in Me", which did not make the film but does play and remind us of the character and the earlier movie, without having it's specter hanging over this film the whole time.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Three Film Mini Festival Everybody Wants Some/Sing Street/Elvis and Nixon

This is what happens when I am kept out of a movie theater for a month. It's the kind of thing that happens to addicts of all kinds, when their supply is back, they OD. Fortunately, I have not yet heard of anyone dying from seeing too many films in a short amount of time. That means that instead of turning up naked on the floor of the bathroom as a corpse, you get to encounter me in a good mood with nice things to say and great films to share. Comments might be a little briefer than usual because  you don't want to come down from your high to fast or hard.

Everybody Wants Some



We start with this Richard Linklater comedy which is billed as the emotional descendant of his classic "Dazed and Confused".  A movie like this should be playing on 3000 screens in the summertime, not 400 in the spring. The world however has changed and a raunchy comedy with sex, drugs and Rock and Roll, is not as welcome at the cineplex as it once was. Maybe the art-house reputation of Linklater from his last film, "Boyhood" scared the marketing and distribution divisions of the studio and they decided to play it safe. With a $10 Million budget and no stars, it begs for a wide and quick release with a front loaded marketing campaign featuring the hi jinks and nudity that the younger audience would want. Treating it as an art house release (we saw it at a Laemalle Theater) with a platform release, I'd be surprised if they get their money back. It's entertaining enough and provides the requisite laughs, but it is not going to have the word of mouth that builds it into a cult favorite like the earlier films of Linklater in this genre.

A cross between "Animal House" and "Dazed and Confused", "Everybody Wants Some" doesn't knock it out of the park, but it does score from second base on a long flyball to the outfield. In case you were unaware, the film focuses on the antics of a championship caliber baseball team at a Texas University in 1980. The movie is filled with wall to wall references to the times, including the changing music scenes and the college culture of the day.  The jocks occupy two adjoining houses near campus and enjoy many perks afforded star athletes on a campus like the one depicted here. The rampant sexism is played off as a symptom of the times and since there is ultimately a sweet story to go along with at least one character, it seems to be forgivable to me. Having lived through these times and been a coach on a college team debate, not anything sports related) i can say that the "in-group" mentality of the team is pretty accurately portrayed. Everyone wants to be the top dog, everyone wants to fit in, and the older members of the team, take it as the gospel truth, that the new guys don't know anything.

I already have all the songs that appear on the sountrack, so I don't need to rush out and get the song score for the movie,in fact, most of the music here I owned originally on vinyl. If you come from a more recent generation, just be assured that it is an accurate reflection of the musical tastes of the day.  This includes early rap, pop country, the last vestiges of disco and of course the straight forward rock catalogue of the day. The characters are familiar but they all have a shiny veneer that makes them seem fresh. The main protagonist is a decent guy for the most part, but capable of being a pig on occasion. There are locker room philosophers and pig headed bullies and sluts and "nice girls" all over the place. As an example of a culture it is a microcosm of every stereotype about jocks and drama kids you can imagine. It's a lot of fun but not as deep ans some people who smoked from a two chambered bong want you to believe it is.






So I mentioned that I saw this at the Laemalle in Pasadena, I just want you to know how art house this theater is. The bathrooms are decorated. That's right, there is art in the john. I liked it but I also thought it was indicative of how isolating the experience is going to be for our first movie.
You just don't see a lot of classic film poster reproduction above the urinals these days.


Sing Street



Much more in keeping with the surroundings was the second feature of the day, another music centric film from writer-director John Carney who brought us "Once" and from a couple of years ago "Begin Again". If the baseball college comedy we started the day out with was a combination of "Animal House" and "Dazed and Confused", than this film is an amalgam of "The Commitments" and "Billy Elliot". Just as the American film is set in the early eighties and features a song list that could be found on any jukebox in the States in 1980, this movie set in Dublin in 1985, features a mix of pop, new wave and rock that could have easily been played on a continuous loop on MTV. It also features some smashing songs that mimic the styles of the times and show exactly how music can be infectious and viral, especially at a creative level.

One of the things that perhaps differs my blog from other movie sites is that I have a very personal take on the experience. While I do sometimes comment on film making techniques or  performances, more than anything, I try to share my feeling for the movies that I see. My experience is informed by my personality and history. I am a sentimentalist and I did live through these times. I can see some flaws in this film. There is a too pat plot line that follows a dozen other movies. It is a coming of age story with rebellion, a seemingly hopeless romance and a "let's put on a show" mentality. All of it will strike you as derivative. What won't however feel that way is the cast and the songs. The young actors here don't feel like cardboard characters. The two brothers in the film are oddly different enough from each other that they are more believable as brothers as a result. The girl is lovely but I'm not sure that the "model" tag she puts on herself works, but video vixen does. The jump to songwriting perfection comes too smoothly for the lead and his musical partner, but since the songs are so winning and perfectly cast in contrast to the latest musical style the band adopts, you can forgive that story telling misstep. I loved this movie for it's sincerity and for it's heart. There is a perfectly realized music video that appears in the lead's head as he plays at a video rehearsal which matches the opening sequence in "Begin Again" for imagination and looking inside of a person's head.

It will be fun to revisit this movie at home because then I can rewind all the bits that were incomprehensible to me due to the local vernacular and accents.  The film does not shy away from showing some of the grimmer elements of life for these kids trapped in a place that they see as hopeless. The bleakness of life and the break up of the families that form the background of the story are passing references, not the main focus of what is going on. This is the first film I can remeber seeing a disclaimer for in the credits that apologizes for the way things might have been in the past. The real Synge Street School seems to be acknowledging that it was not a very forward thinking institution in 1985. It was an odd finish to a terrific film that lifted my heart with music and the kind of passion that everyone ought to feel about something in their life. That this fish out of water romance is also about the love of two brothers is just extra cream in the coffee.I'll be looking for these songs on-line, to add to my library,

Here is just a little taste of the joy you have in store.




Elvis & Nixon




If the first two movies from this orgy of film were music centered, the third manages to be so without featuring the actual songs of the music icon named in the title. Elvis Presley, the greatest entertainer to ever touch the stage, does not have a song of his featured in the movie bearing his name. The soundtrack of the movie is brimming with music acts from the 1970 year that the film was set, but the King is not one of them. A Elvis movie without Elvis songs is one thing, but how about an Elvis movie without a guy who looks much like Elvis?  Michael Shannon is an actor with a character face. He is not pretty in any way, certainly not in the way that the real King was. He makes up for it with personality and performance. After ten minutes you'll stop thinking about how little he looks like Elvis, but rather how much he seems to embody the weird things that we have heard about Presley. By the way, Kevin Spacey doesn't look much like Nixon, but he might want to brush up on his awards speech because he may very well be next years winner for Best Supporting Actor. His is more than an impression, he manages to get under the skin and show us the contradictory Nixon that has baffled his friends and opponents alike.

This film is based on the unbelievable but still true meeting between two of the most recognizable people on the planet in 1970. Such an unlikely duo just tickles the funny bone thinking about it. These may also have been two of the quirkiest people on the planet in 1970. Elvis may very well have been spaced out on some prescription meds when he decided to try to help America fight the scourge of drugs. Nixon was never a lovable teddy bear of a figure, but he comes off here as one of the more likable characters on screen this year. Nixon is a power figure, flummoxed by his inability to wield power in the presence of the King's monomaniacal vision. Almost all of this had to be imagined because  no recording exists of what the two spoke about, but there is enough detail in the personal recollections of the parties involved who are still alive to construct a reasonable semblance of the events as they played out, at least chronologically, if not completely historical.

In case you have not guessed, this movie is a comedy. It is not a slapstick take on the delusional quest of a mythic figure to conquer the dark side of one of the most complex figures of the twentieth century. It is a comedy of manners. Two completely different worlds collide, the self important musical entertainer, used to getting what he wants because of who he was, and the shrewd political Machiavelli, who is thawed and ultimately charmed out of his natural persona to reveal a human with the same needs as the rest of us. I don't want to dismiss the work of  Joey and Hanala Sagal, who are listed as the primary screenwriters, but having read his recent memoir about making "The Princess Bride" and listened to him at a screening/book signing, I can say that actor and co-producer of this film Cary Elwes, brought some comic perspective to the story as well. Joey also has a cameo as an Elvis impersonator in the film, so he gets to show a little of his comic flair on screen as well as on the page.

Many people can take credit for turning this odd piece of history into an amusing film of less consequence than many but with a couple of huge belly laughs. Colin Hanks, plays Egil "Bud" Krough, the aid to the President that talks him into meeting with Presley and later was a key figure in the Watergate scandal. His comic double takes and perfectly placed exclamations of the "F" word, will bring a smile to your face. Johnny Knoxville shows up as Sonny West, one of the Memphis Mafia that were pals and employees of the King. He does not have a lot of dialogue but his slack jawed expression says volumes at times. The deadpan faces of the Secret Service guys trying to screen Elvis and the fan dazzled eyes of the women working in the Narcotics Bureau and the White House, also make this movie a lot of fun.

It's been a month since i saw a film in the theater, and that was "Batman v. Superman", a bloated but spectacular super hero film that does everything to show how epic it is except entertain us. These three movies don't have a tenth of the budget of that film, but each one supplied so much more pleasure that it should be embarrassing to Hollywood.