Friday, May 20, 2016

The Nice Guys



Here is a film with no redeeming social value whatever, except that it will tickle your funny bone, startle you with sudden shock and leave you feeling invigorated afterwards. The film is a hoot and if there is anyone still living in America with a sense of humor, this film was made for you. While it it not politically incorrect in any way, it features characters that are so amusingly not hip, that the irony police might be called out. "The Nice Guys" is vulgar but not cynical. There is plenty of violence played for humor, but there are real reactions to most of those moments which let the film be much friendlier than you have any right to hope for.

The movie has a retro feel because it is set in the 1970s but also because the characters will remind you of a dozen TV show detectives you may have watched in that era. Jim Rockford is one step away from being a partner in this detective agency, but that would turn the film into a takeoff of the three stooges rather than an homage to Abbot and Costello. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, the boozy private eye, as if he were a handsome Lou Costello. He has the double takes and flustered line delivery that would fit perfectly in a comedy place filler from 1948, "Abbot and Costello Meet the Bimbo". He even has a moment where upon discovering a corpse he becomes a dysphagiatic  mute.

Russell Crowe has settled into middle aged beefiness with as much grace as a guy can muster. He's not the matinee idol of twenty years ago, but he is still a hell of a good actor and he puts on some great comic chops here. Crowe and Gosling play off of one another in such a natural way that it is easy to imagine a series of films  featuring these characters. Of course I thought the same thing eleven years ago with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in pretty much the same roles. Shane Black may be cribbing from himself but at least he's doing it from "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" and not "The Last Boy Scout". The convoluted plot and the violent gangsters are standard for him, as is the involvement of a woman, more competent that the two leads, in this case March's thirteen year old daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice.

The Warner Brothers logo from the seventies is on the opening credits of the movie. The city of Los Angeles is in it's deep dark days of heavy smog overcast, and Hollywood was a sleaze factory of sex more than violence. Southern California residents will recognize the decay of the Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles River Bridge, and the intersection of Jefferson and Figueroa are not anything like they once were. [In fact, the bridge is gone now]. The hillsides of Hollywood though are played for great laughs and Ryan Gosling may be a comic genius because he manages to make the most incompetent Private Eye in the world, still come off as a sometimes insightful investigator, of course sometimes he just gets lucky.



I hope they do make this into an adult cartoon, ala "Archer" or at least plan a couple of other big screen adventures. It would be a shame to leave this much enjoyment to just the current movie season. This is my most anticipated movie of the summer, and The Temptations "Papa was a Rolling Stone" had me hooked from the first few frames. Plenty of soul music from the era plus a Bee Gees tune and Kiss anthem. It's as if they found one of the home made 8-track mix tapes from my old Cutlass and plugged it into the speakers for the film. Maybe it's the nostalgia factor that worked for me but I believe others much younger than me will get a kick out of this as well, burnt orange palate aside. 

Aliens Loot Crate Un-Boxing

My first Un-Boxing Video, POW, Take that Social Media.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

TCM Film Festival Coverage Finale: A Double Dose of Barron and Burtt

I've saved my favorite events for the end of the Festival post. This was a tough choice because so many special moments were had by me at this years festival. The Vitaphone Presentation was incredibly enlightening and educational. It certainly gets me in the mood to learn more about the process and to seek out the films of that early sound era. Francis Coppola was  a personal high point because he was the first director I knew by name as a kid and seeing him in person was just a great emotional moment. "Fat City" was the best rediscovery of the Festival, Stacy Keach was magnificent in the film. "Shanghai Express" was a wonder to behold, the technical sophistication of the film in 1932 is a wonder. Ultimately, my geek side won out because there is just something about a couple of tech guys, talking about their own fascination with the process that acts like a magnet for me.

Special Effects wizard Craig Barron and Sound magician Ben Burtt, are the Dynamic Duo that always seem to impress. My first visit to the Festival was two years ago when I crashed a screening of my favorite movie that was being discussed extensively by these two.  Their avuncular personalities and attention to detail really impressed me and last year they repeated the accomplishment with an excellent presentation on another early classic. So I had high expectations this year as well.



Everyone has seen "It's A Wonderful Life"  enough times I'm sure to be dehydrated from the experience. I think this was my first time seeing it on the big screen however. My companions included my daughter Amanda and my friend Michael, who blogs at "It Rains...You Get Wet". We saw several films at the festival in his company, but I suspect this one might be his favorite. He has thought very carefully and thoroughly about it as is evidenced by his "Favorite Scenes" post from just a week ago.  In addition to the waterworks we all experienced, our special effects guys did a very nice job showing how some of the visual and sound elements of the film were achieved. There was a very nice power point presentation which visualized the bridge that Clarence and George both jump off of. The imaginary river and the pretty perfect process shot that goes with it were a complete surprise to me. I'd never have guessed that this was a shot that involved a large amount of camera trickery.
The composites that go into this shot were really pretty amazing, but it is put together so seamlessly that you would think they filmed on a actual bridge. We also got to see some miniatures that were used for the Baily house in the opening and the matte shots that help make up the second story of the old Granville house

There was an extensive discussion of some of the sound elements in the film as well. The crowd noises and wind sounds and the tinny piano that young Janie Baily plays as George is having his breakdown were not accomplished without some effort. As an extra treat there were a few deleted shots of Mr. Potter's mansion thrown into the mix, just so we can say the Academy archives had been fully plunged.








The second film they presented was even more fascinating and right up the special effects alley that these guys own. The  George Pal production of "War of the Worlds" is a spectacular looking movie with enough effects shots to keep an audience involved for hours. The extensive footage shown which described a brief twenty second shot of one of the Mars War Machines attacking a part of the city before it crashes was compelling as all heck. They pointed out a very amazing shot in which the model actually caught fire from one of the squibs that was used to simulated explosions as the attack takes place.

The combination of shots that was required to produce the effect of the war machines shields was just great. It's always incredible to me how the early film guys figured out all the things that had to be done to get a great shot. This movie is more than sixty years old but the sophistication of the techniques is impressive without any computer work at all. 
This reproduction of one of the war machines was on display in the Club TCM area of the Roosevelt Hotel. The puppetry, electronics and mechanical engineering required to make it all come together was fascinating to see. As I sat with a capacity crowd in the theater, I felt like I was being delivered my own "live" version of a DVD Special Feature.

There was also a demonstration of the manner in which some of the sounds of the attacking machines made was achieved.  A student group from a local technical college had brought in a high tension wire, stretched from floor to ceiling and you could hear the dynamic and other worldly sound that it made.

A bonus to the screening was the presence of co-star Ann Robinson, who after being introduced in the audience, stood up and answered a few questions and shared a few memories of making the film. There was an interesting publicity shot of a make up and costume look that had next to nothing to do with the picture. Ms. Robinson told us that it was just some publicity material that was tried out at the studio and never really used.It was an unplanned little extra that sometimes happens at events like this. Barron and Burtt were pleased to be able to add a little to their presentation with her input.

The new fan zone planned by TCM promises some backstage material from the TCM archives. I suspect that these interviews, demonstrations and slide presentations will be among the featured items at the site. I hope I'm right on that, and when I spend my money on it and support the channel, I will be able to revisit some of these great Movie Conversations. Ben Burtt and Craig Barron are on the top of my list of things I hope to find on "The Backlot".










Saturday, May 14, 2016

TCM Film Festival : Fat City 1972

If you have read on this blog to any depth at all, you know that i am a champion of 1970s films. This whole blog started as a project to catalogue the films I saw in the summers of the 1970s.  There is a sense of danger and grittiness to films from that era. They don't all end well, there are some very cynical views of life shown, and characters are often flawed in ways that real people are. They have their good points but the imperfections are substantial.

John Huston as a director is a solid choice for films featuring these kinds of characters. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Beat the Devil"" feel like they were warm up exercises for a movie like this. While it may not be a Forgotten Film for old movie geeks like me, "Fat City" is a movie that probably no one in any of my classes has ever heard of much less seen. The subject matter and the style of the director would be too grim for most cinema goers these days. Heck, I'm not even sure it could be made as an independent film in the current marketplace. The closest comparison to a contemporary movie I can think of is "The Wrestler". Both feature characters that are flawed and struggling to come to terms with their weaknesses. If you thought the end of  "The Wrestler" was tough, get ready to be punched in the gut because this movie is even more somber.  "Fat City" is a film of it's day and it belongs in the 1970s.

Susan Tyrell was the actress nominated for one of the least glamorous characters in movies this side of  Aileen Wuornos. Oma is a woman too used up and soaking in alcohol to be of much use to anyone. She sometimes seems like she has a heart but she is completely self centered and simply can't do anything to help the main character Tully with his own demons. She was one of the things I most remembered about seeing the film when it first came out and the last time I saw it, sometime in the early 1980s. Her subsequent career never seemed to give her a similar opportunity to shine and I recall that she passed away three or four years ago.

The greatest performance in the film is the lead and I am flabbergasted that Stacy Keach was not nominated for his role as the slightly past his expiration date boxer Billy Tully. From the dialogue free first five minutes of the film, Keach is magnetic. He feels so genuine as the abandoned former prodigy, embittered by bad luck in the ring and a wife who he loved deeply but who left him. He is coping with alcohol and working some of the toughest jobs there are to get by. The film is set in Stockton, California, an agricultural center and a city with a hard as flint personality. The actor seems to fit perfectly in this setting and as he starts to consider getting back into boxing, we have so much sympathy for him because he comes across as a guy trying to cope but in over his depth. The boxing sequences are fine but it is his scenes with Tyrell and a very young Jeff Bridges that gives the performance it's spark. There is a terrific scene where Billy returns to the gym where his former manager is training a new crop of prospects. We know that they stopped working together on bad terms and that the last time the down on his luck Tully saw his former coach, he borrowed twenty bucks from him. Unprompted, Tully acts as if the reason he is stopping by is to make good on that loan. We know how hard it was for him to earn that twenty bucks and how valuable it is to him, but he wants to pass it off as a trifling, to get back in with the crew. Keach gives a warm half smile and a shrug of his shoulders as a way of conveying all of this and it is a great moment.

The boxing milieu of this era may be long gone but it is shown here in all of it's difficult and hopeful sides. This is a life that seems truly hard, but it has the reward of accomplishment. Ernie Munger, the character played by Bridges is supposed to be an up and comer, discovered by Tully and groomed by his former manager, Ernie is himself something of a mess. He has a lot of potential but some of the same perils that Billy faced. It looks for a while like this movie will be about the two different trajectories these two are on. Instead, it is much more of a character and tone piece. Plot matters less than the feeling of sadness and hope that floats over all the characters. Despite the bad things that happen to each, there ends up being more compassion in this brutal existence than we have much right to expect. A cup of coffee, silently shared, holds the two boxers in each others orbt, long enough to see that although the battle is lost the fight goes on.

Stacy Keach received a very nice ovation as the guest before the screening. Eddie Muller, the noir expert and writer was the interviewer and he brought a nice sense of involvement to the event since the author of the novel the film was based on was a professional acquaintance, and his father wrote for the newspaper about fighters just like the ones we see here in the film. Keach was generous with his stories and clearly proud that the film has a great reputation at least among the cinema fans. He was probably already gone from the venue when the film finished which is too bad because the audience response was twice as enthusiastic. There was a literal roar of approval at the closing credits, which validates every positive thing you could say about this movie. This was one of my top three moments from the Festival. An unsentimental masterpiece by John Huston and actor Stacy Keach.


Friday, May 13, 2016

TCM FF: Cinema Paradiso

Movie lovers of all stripes should rejoice at an opportunity to see this ode to their own obsessions and especially on the big screen at the Chinese Theater.  This was the closing film of the festival and it was clearly chosen to celebrate the themes of the festival and the TCM Channel itself: Moving Pictures.  This sentimental story of a friendship between a little boy obsessed with the movies and the projectionist at the village theater, will surely bring one to tears if you let it wash over you without thought to anything more than the story and the feelings the film connects us with.

Cynics need not apply because this movie is manipulative as all heck, bit like a number of films shown at the festival, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", "It's a Wonderful Life", and "Rocky", it earns it's tears with characters and dialogue. It simply helps to come under the sway of it's spell to be an old movie weirdo. The last ten minutes of the film will evoke memories of our own passion for films and it will probably send you on a treasure hunt as well. You will have a strong desire to track down those movies that are referenced and enjoy them in their more complete form.

For the screening, actor Salvatore “Totò” Cascio, was present. He played the young boy who can't keep his mind on anything except the films playing at the theater in his Sicilian village. Almost forty now, he seems to have had a happy life trading on his role in the film and being beloved around the world. The translations were sometimes unnecessary because the laughter in his voice and the tone of his answers often said it all.

The Chinese theater is certainly more opulent than the Paradiso, with its benches and folding chairs. The magic of the projector, streaming images out of a lions head is captured almost the same as the image above. An audience is entranced by the wonders that take place in the dark. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

TCM FF: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

This film is so well known that it has been remade and there dozens of cultural references to it in the political world. In pop culture I just caught a reference to it in the new "Captain America: Civil War" film, as Tony Stark tries to talk to Steve Rogers, he asks Bucky, the Winter Soldier, to put down his weapon, and he refers to him as "Manchurian Candidate". This obvious reference to brainwashing comes up in a dramatic moment with a humorous context, and that is the way the whole film feels. It is a drama of political intrigue with assassination at it's heart, but it is filled with comic moments that make you shake your head at the audacity of the story telling and film making.

Amanda had never seen it before, despite the fact that it seems to be on our Retro Channel on a weekly basis (not TCM, I think it is a Fox feed). It was rediscovered in the mid 80s, and the story I heard was that Frank Sinatra asked one of his people why he never saw the movie on the late show, and they explained that he controlled the rights and had mostly pulled it from circulation after the JFK assassination. Frank decided it needed to be out and I remember going to a screening on the west side of L.A. when a baby shower was taking place at my friend Rick's house. He and I went to see it and had very similar reactions. We both thought the movie was great but it has some strange stuff in it.

Among the oddest things in the film is the meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra's characters on a train. The pick up lines she uses on him and the daffy way he responds to her are just so different, you wonder if they are in the same scene together, much less the same movie. Leigh's character has no reason to exist in the film at all, so maybe the dialogue was tweaked to give  her character something memorable to do.

Just about everyone else who made the picture is dead, but 94 year old Angela Lansbury is still around and she graced this screening with her presence. She is an impressive figure who has a mind sharp enough to put guest interviewer Alec Baldwin to shame. She was quick to come up with names and moments that Mr. Baldwin seemed only to half remember. It's not that he did a bad job, it's just that he seemed so much less engaged than the woman 37 years his senior who still is as sharp as a tack.
The audience was very appreciative and they should be. This was Lansbury's last Oscar nominated performance and except for a very few occasions, she slipped back into theater work and only returned to Hollywood for the TV series that she starred in for 12 years and 260 plus episodes. Which by the way has been off the air for twenty years if you want to feel a little old. She was terrific in the movie, but had the unfortunate luck to be up against a sixteen year old in the part of a lifetime in 1962. In an odd coincidence Patty Duke, the winner from that year, passed away only a few weeks ago.  One of the things that make film great for we fans however is that these performances will be around a long time after the stars have moved on. Although in Ms. Lansbury's case, that may never happen.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

TCM FF: The Longest Yard

It's unfortunate that Burt Reynolds had to cancel on the Film Festival this year. I heard someone say there was an illness but I never saw an official explanation. He was scheduled to do one of the up close interviews and his would have made a great companion piece to run through the year to the Faye Dunnaway interview that did get done. The 80 year old star is an under rated actor in my view and he was a fixture on the film scene in the 1970s. Some fans of classic films might cut the date off for "Classics" nearly a decade earlier than this movie was released. I do see that it is a different era but I also have a broader version of the phrase "Classic Film".

Producer Albert S. Ruddy, who won the Academy Award for Best Picture with "The Godfather" and "Million Dollar Baby", did make it to the presentation and he puts forward a persuasive argument that this movie was substantially responsible for the wave of sports films that followed in the next few years. The underdog story is in fact a theme of this film but it turns out to be a lot deeper as well. I remember seeing this with my buddy Art Franz at the Garfield Theater in my home town of Alhambra. At the time it was the funniest adult style comedy I'd seen and it still holds up today. On my original project of Summer Movies from the 70s, my daughter wrote about this film for me while I was on a cruse to Alaska. It was nice to get to see it with her in a theater and watch her have the same kind of emotional reaction to the game as she described in her post almost six years ago.

Also appearing at the film was football legend Joe Kapp, the only player to have played in the Rose Bowl, Grey Cup, and Super Bowl. In the movie he plays the Walking Boss and definitely looks intimidating. His interview was a little awkward because he is nearly deaf and could not get the prompts from either Al Ruddy or the Sportswriter who was conducting the session. I did get a chance to shake hands and say hi to him outside the theater when we had gotten back in line for the next film of the day. He is 78 and not as on top of things as some are at that age but he was friendlier than all get out.

They finally got the story out about the local cops locking up much of the cast after a bar room altercation. It was interesting to hear that the prison guards in the movie were in jail one night before they were playing jailers themselves. When I listened to a podcast covering the festival recently, I heard that several more recent films that had been booked in the bigger venues were not drawing very well. This was effeminately one of those. It was a very moderate crowd, I suspect because the feature attraction was unable to make it. Listening to Albert Ruddy however made me glad that I came. He struck me as the kind of guy that Hollywood does not make anymore and that they really need more of.