Sunday, October 27, 2013
AMC is currently playing a series of films from the past in showcase times on Sundays and Tuesdays. I did not get to "Bonnie and Clyde" and I will miss "Dirty Harry" next week, but I got a chance this afternoon to revisit Stanley Kubrick's version of "The Shining". It is a great film even though it is not as scary as you might have been lead to believe. It is creepy as all get out, and there are some good shocks, but the most disturbing and frightening image is a series of words typed out on a page. The gore level is low, the tension is slow building, and the style is all Kubrick, who has always been a "cool" film maker as opposed to a passionate hot.
This is not a full review but just a few comments about some of the things I noticed in the film that either escaped my attention before or that I'd simple forgotten. For instance, the guy who hires Jack Torrance to be the winter caretaker is Barry Nelson, a well known TV and character actor from the 50s and 60s who had the distinction of being the first actor to portray James Bond on screen. That was something I got a kick out of. The movie that Wendy and Danny are watching when Danny goes up to their apartment and finds his Dad sitting on the edge of the bed was "The Summer of 42". I don't know for sure why it struck me as interesting except that I'm a big fan of that movie.
Actor Tony Burton appears briefly in the film as the guy who gets Scatman Crothers a SnowKat to take up to the Overlook Hotel. He was Apollo Creed's corner man in the first couple of Rocky movies and he was a customer of the insurance agency my wife worked for thirty years ago. She said he was a very nice man, and I think he lives in our area because there is one of those autographed shots of him at the local Phillie's Best Sandwich shop. I also enjoyed the fact that Dr. Tyrell was serving the bourbon in the bar to Jack Torrance. Apparently Joe Turkel was a favorite of Kubricks.
Jack is at his Jack best in this movie. His performance is all eyebrows and smiles. Up until the end of the picture he manages to be a sympathetic character. You'd have to sympathize with a guy married to Shelly Duvall's Wendy. She is a nervous breakdown in a dress. I think I heard that Kubrick did not care much for her as an actress and tormented her to get the performance she turns in. It was an odd choice and it works for the movie but she doesn't get the kind of emotional support from the audience that would make her a more fulfilling heroine.
I have a lot of other things to do so as I said this is not a full review, just a bit of fun to remind people it is Halloween week and they should go out and find a scary movie to enjoy. That's what I did, even though it is 33 years old.
This will be short and to the point. There is almost no way this whole scenerio could ever come close to happening. It is over the top dramatic and the prisoners in the "Tomb" would not have the same access to each other that they would have in a normal prison. The job that Sly has is one of those movie created specialties that exist in a screenwriters fantasy and that's about the only place. The speed of events and the brutality of the fights would leave normal human beings dead after a couple of minutes. All of that means nothing because this is an action film starring the two biggest action stars of the last thirty years and it goes down like candy. Sweeet.
As the world's foremost prison security expert (based on breaking out of high security penitentiary's). Stallone is his usual tough guy with a brain character. His brain is not big enough to keep him from being betrayed and locked in a prison that was built largely based on weaknesses he himself discovered.So the stakes are pretty high. Guess who he runs into on the inside, the Governator himself. Looking fit and with a stylish moustache and goatee. He is another prisoner who has been deep sixed into this high tech prison. Together they must break out. That's it. You don't really need more plot set up than that.
Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes the detailed information he would need to crack a case. Holmes has made a study of tobacco so he knows where in London a certain blend can be bought. It was occasionally a stretch but it was not overused in the Holmes canon. Sly's character kno2ws the heat rate at which rusted steel bolts will snap, he knows that milk cartons have a cellophane like liner that can hold a mark and he can not only build a sextant, he can use one and teach someone else how to do so also. Yet this is the kind of hokum, fans of action films love. We love it when the hero outsmarts the bad guys and surprises us with a unexpected use for everyday items. MacGyver made a whole TV series out of that audience demand. So shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride.
Schwarzenegger is actually pretty good in his role as a guy who knows secrets that the bad guys want. He gets tortured and locked into isolation and gets to feign a breakdown as part of the plot to escape. His German sound very convincing, I wonder why because his English never was. Both he and Stallone beat up fellow prisoners and each other from time to time. The movie takes a while to get us to the prison but once it does there are plenty of the usual tough guy tropes. The biggest gas comes when, during the actual breakout, Arnold picks up a big ass machine gun off a helicopter. Anyone who has seen a Terminator movie knows what comes next and that's what we are waiting for.
The movie is efficient at making the characters just interesting enough for us to care, before tossing us into prison mayhem. The bad guy warden played by Jim Caviezel is just a big enough prick that we are anticipating the final outcome. There are plot holes and inconsistencies galore but who cares? Arnold and Sly get together to kick a little ass. I heard on "The Title Pending Movie Podcast" that they did not think it was quite "Cobrawesome". I guess I agree but I did find it "Terminazing".
Saturday, October 26, 2013
It is hard for me to accept that I went three weeks with this in theaters and I'd not seen it yet. Holy crap, is this a great movie! I know nothing about Formula 1 racing, I knew next to nothing about this story and I've been hit ot miss on Ron Howard films for years. So you can take my word to the bank, this is one of the best films of the year. If it gets lost among all the other great films coming out now because Americans are not well versed in Formula 1, it would be a crying shame. The screenplay and performances in this movie are sure contenders for awards consideration and the film is directed with great confidence and patience by Mr. Howard. This is a thinking person's movie. It asks big questions and it probes deeply into the psyche of competition.
James Hunt and Niki Lauda are legends in their field. While they might be embraced by fans of racing, as portrayed here they would not be embraced by most of humanity. Each one has damning flaws and personalities that would drive the average person to the brink. Hunt is a reckless glory seeking thrill addict, who can't make an emotional connection and leaves a series of romantic conquests in his wake. Lauda is a brilliant machine, focused on the odds and playing a strictly regulated percentage as a competitor. That he manages to form a fully functioning romantic relationship is miraculous in itself since his arrogant self assurance is so off putting. As each one circles around the other, it is clear that their rivalry is uniquely reponsible for their individual success. Americans know how Larry Bird and Magic Johnson drove each other further along the path of greatness, this relationship works the same way. Each one needs the other as a standard by which to be compared.
Both actors are terrific in the parts they are cast in. Chris Helmsworth was made to be an object of romantic fantasy. Women will want him and men will want to be him. He has swagger and weakness at the same time. he knows he can count on his good looks and his driving skills, but he can't always count on his head to tell him the right thing to do. The scene where Hunt antagonizes his wife into the arms of Richard Burton happens quickly and Helmsworth plays it fast and dismissive. Later he is all manufactured confidence when he announces to the world that he and his model wife are calling it quits. His crack to the media sounds light and cynical but we get a peek behind the curtain and see how it really effects him. Daniel Brühl as Lauda has the showier role despite being a character that is more contained. The physical transformation after his accident and the internalized struggle he goes through in trying to find enough reason to marry is played very well on screen.
The car racing sequences are aggressively edited and the sound design was impressive. I felt frequently caught up in the recreation of races from nearly forty years ago. The dramatic crash that briefly sidelines Lauda but changes him almost not at all was frightening and a little stomach churning as well. The harrowing hospital scenes are another place where Brühl gets to be the center of the story and show us what he has got. Hans Zimmer may have some cliches in his bag of tricks, but they work really well in this movie and the musical score keeps us involved and on the edge of the seat during the races. Howard and his team of editors don't linger over scenes and they don't cut them so quickly that you can't tell what is happening. This film was put together by people who know how to tell a story.
We had a conversation last night about how few movies these days feature actors in dramatic roles that are really about grown ups acting out a drama. This movie has come along and shut that conversation down. There are still good stories to tell and good actors who can play the story out for us. in the hands of another director, this could have just been an inspirational sports film. Howard and company have made a movie about courage, rivalry and the sacrifices it takes to be a champion. The fact that the story is true should not detract from their accomplishment. This film is almost out of theaters now, do yourself the favor of finding it in your local cinema and see what a great movie can be in the current film environment.
Friday, October 25, 2013
Here is my take on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I tried to find a theme that would be a bit different but I know that some of the choices were going to be obvious, at least they were to me. The four films I've chosen to represent the four horsemen have a common actor to unite them. His powerful voice and steel jawed expression make him the ideal stand in for God in the end of days. All of the films have their own following so there is not much need to introduce each of them. So I will give my simple justification and provide a few links to make a short visit worth your time.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Everyone has an opinion about remakes. Most cinephiles hate them with a passion. "The new version will never live up to the original and Hollywood is creatively bankrupt". Of course people who have never seen the original don't care and they may first fall in love with the new work sometimes without even knowing that it was made before, "Oh my god, it's a remake? The original can't be as good." My opinion is that a remake is only likely to succeed if there was something about the original that is evergreen. The subject, the role the concept has to be something that people can relate to. This film is not an English language remake of a foreign film, so stupid Americans can watch without reading. It is a traditional remake, a chance to tell the same story in a different way for a new audience. Having seen the original however, it is impossible to approach the new film with impartial eyes. There will always be comparisons. So this review will focus on the comparisons.
The story is largely unchanged. The plot moves in the same direction with the same basic characters so there are no surprises as far as that goes. If you saw Brian DePalma's 1976 original, you have seen the story. There are differences in style though that are interesting and help the movie feel fresh despite the previous version. For instance, the start of this film is very different, it has a flashback story technique that takes a little advantage of our expectations and makes what follows a bit more meaningful. Julianne Moore is playing the Piper Laurie role of Carrie's mom. She is pathetic and frightening and loving and hateful, and usually all at the same time. The religious fanaticism here is contained to her world and unlike the original, this woman is not surviving on the charity of guilty Christians. She is even more clearly disturbed than Laurie was in the part. That being said, I think she feels less of a presence than in the 1976 version. Carrie's powers dominate after she gets asked to the prom, and the terror that we felt for Sissy Spacek when she returns from the prom is less ominous as a result.
The DePalma version starts with a lurid trip through the girls locker room and the movie is on the brink of being an exploitation film, but it is held back from that by a sympathetic central character. This version never feels dangerous in the same way. It is going to be a serious film from the time it starts and the directors restraint at the beginning creates a more subdued feeling. The bullying that Carrie endures is exaggerated by the modern technology but the bullies are mostly the same. Chris, the main antagonist, acts out her rage at being called on the carpet for being a bitch. When she can't get away with it, even with her father confronting the principal she goes off the deep end. Nancy Allen's version of Chris is mean girl standard, Portia Doubleday is a monster in the making that crawls out of the larvae stage to become a full fledged antagonist. The one flaw from the original film was that Chris' comeuppance was over so quickly, that is a mistake that is remedied here.
In the original, it always seemed to me to be very ambiguous as to Sue and Tommy's motivation for getting Carrie to the prom. William Katt came off as a good natured doofus, and Amy Irving did not quite break with the Chris character. Their involvement in the end becomes a bit of a puzzle. In this version, Sue is clearly conflicted about being one of Chris's drone bees. She is motivated by guilt and a desire to reach out to Carrie. Tommy in this version is also very sweet and he seems to understand his role much more clearly. His exclamation of "What the F@#*" as the crimson shower comes down on them signals to the audience and to Carrie that he was a victim of Chris as well. This is another point that makes the emotions work better although the mind is not taxed as much. I'm not sure which version I prefer but I do know that Tommy is sympathetic in both and Sue is a lot more sympathetic in the new version. The mean girls that follow Chris are not as distinct in the new version so although there is some furious vengence rained down on them, it does not feel as significant.
Carrie is played by one of my favorite young actresses, Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit Girl) for the uninitiated. She is very good in the part. Whereas Sissy Spacek was all big eyes and small voice, Chloë grows more confidence with her power and the decimation of the prom feels like a more deliberate act as a result. The harshness of the original is tempered here in that not everyone dies at the end. That may feel like a sell out but it will make a more sympathetic Carrie at the end of the movie. The remorse and compassion that Carrie feels at the end makes us more likely to resent the "Burns in Hell" graffiti that is the exit of the film. There was no way that the stinger from the original would be matched or that it would work, so they don't try for that. Instead they try for a more supportive outcome that makes us more likely to feel for our protagonist.
The one thing that did clearly fail in the film was the CGI effects. They take us out of the movie and were overdone. If you have seen the viral video of the coffee shop, you will see a more convincing and frightening version of the power that Carrie wields. I don't know that we can but the genii back in the bottle but the old school effects are more effective at creating real shock than the modern computer. I was very satisfied with the film. The story still gives us a slow burn and the actors do a good job making their characters feel fresh even though this is a remake. Since I'm not a hater I am willing to give this movie my approval. It was not necessary but it was not a waste of time either.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
I'm afraid this sequel should have been called "Machete Sucks".
If you have read this site in the past, you know that I am a as big a fan of trash cinema as the next person. I enjoy those terrible SyFy Channel shark movies, I like to wallow in bad taste humor and violent action films are my Big Mac. So this series of movies, based on a trailer invented for the "Grindhouse" feature a few years ago should be right up my alley. I will admit that there were some great bits in "Machete" when it came out three years ago. My favorite part being Machete's use of a guys intestines to swing down a couple of floors and escape. The problem I had with that film was that it started moralizing about political subjects it had not earned the right to be serious about.
Rumor had it that this new version steered clear on the Illegal Alien subtext and stuck strictly to an action formula. That had my hopes up but they were quickly dashed. "Machete Kills" is supposed to be fun trash cinema and it is dumb trash cinema. Writer Director Richard Rodriguez has taken a great idea, and a great character and turned it into a meaningless cartoon with less personality than Scooby Doo. Somewhere he got the idea that all he had to do was show cool images and that would be enough. There are a lot of neat looking things in the movie, but they are pasted together in such a slapdash fashion that they mean nothing and don't hold your attention or build suspense. It feels like a TV movie made by someone who has seen enough action films to know what to include but has no idea what an action film is really all about.
The bad guys are all built up to be horrible but they are dispatched without any fun or glee. People are shooting all the time but no one seems to feel any anxiety about being shot at. They die too quickly or escape without consequence. Much of the film reminds me of "Sin City" which was all about the look and did not have a single moment of real emotion in it. Pacing feels wrong, everything happens quickly and without purpose. Characters change allegiance, personality and their faces for no reason whatsoever. There are jokes that just lay there and do nothing and random people are killed without any explanation. The CGI bloodshed may have something to do with this. So much of it seems designed for a visual gag, but the gags only work if we are caught up in what is going on.
Danny Trejo is a national treasure that is wasted here. Action stops repeatedly when he is threatened and he is not escaping by using his wits. When there is a funny bit it is thrown away so quickly that there is not much chance to enjoy it. Mostly he is asked to walk around mayhem that goes on around him. Slow motion walking does not build a good character. It's as if he was directed to express no emotion at all, but he needs to be angry and determined. He looks lost in a PG sex scene and bored in every other scene. No one gets to spend much screen time with him and that also undermines our ability to care.
I am so overwhelmed when I encounter talent far beyond my ability to comprehend. I know authors and directors and actors are special people who bring their talent to the audience in a way that is amazing, but more than any other skill or ability in the world of the arts, the talent to draw or paint stuns me. There are very talented computer animators and musicians, but I guess their tools feel so much more significant to their work in comparison to a man with a canvas, some pencils and paint. To watch someone manipulate an air brush or colored pencil and turn a blank canvas into something spectacular is a gift from the gods. Tonight I had the pleasure of watching a film about one of those artists with a talent far beyond my understanding. Drew Struzan has been making commercial art for forty years and all of it is in my head because the art he is best known for is hanging on my walls right now. Drew Struzan does movie poster art. He paints the images and draws the figures and integrates the imagination with the eye. Everyone who reads this will know his work although many of you will not know his name.
If you were to name a movie series from the last forty years of film, except for James Bond, Drew appears to have painted something for those projects. Even when his artwork is not used for the main poster, there are special edition posters and art books and box art for home video that he created. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future all use his iconic work. He does not produce those images from a computer but rather with his own two hands using an eye for detail that most of us cannot comprehend. This film gives us some brief glimpses of him at work and the small details that he adds to all of his work make the images come to life. Some might dismiss this work as mere illustration but when you see the creativity and magic that the images provoke, you will know that this is fine art.
The film is a love letter to poster art and a warm tribute to the man himself. The director Eric Sharkey managed to make a human story as well as a thank you note from all of us. I was surprised at some of the dark issues that got mentioned, because this type of biographical film might be seen as a mere puff piece. Drew's start in life was not easy and breaking into the art world was a passion that most of us cannot imagine. The term "starving artist" has been around forever, but it certainly seemed to apply here. Even though it was more than forty years ago, I found myself heaving a sigh of relief when Drew got his first steady job working as an illustrator for album covers.Since I am a huge Bee Gees fan, the work that I most admired was the cover art for the "Main Course" album.
It was however the amazing cover for Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare, that got him noticed by the more lucrative world of movie advertising and it wasn't long before he was knee deep in the film business with a lot of big names knocking at his door. A collaboration with another illustrator on the poster for Star Wars, lead to a long time association with George Lucas.Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and many others all line up to sing the praises of this talented artist. Each is able to express a sense of wonder at how his style and technique bring a living quality to his paintings. Spielberg has even gone so far to say that he needs to make the movie live up to the illustrations that Drew provided for the film.
There are highs and lows in the stories and some truly amazing pieces of information. The poster for "John Carpenter's The Thing" was done without any visual reference to the story, no photos from the set, a complete absence of guidelines for what the "Thing" looked like and it was done in a day. Many would consider the concept to be among the most clever of his career. I can't think of how someone could accomplish this in months, much less in the space of just over a day. As you listen to Drew Struzan describe these events, it is clear he is not bragging or exaggerating. He is a quiet, unassuming man with confidence in his ability and a sense of guilelessness that is disarming. He tells the stories proudly but without glory. He is a man simply describing his work, not aggrandizing it. That is for everyone else to do and they all do it very well.
I almost went full fanboy at the screening tonight. It took place at the Archlight theater in Hollywood, and I just happened on an announcement on Facebook. Mr. Struzan himself was going to attend and there would be some Q and A. I brought my copy of his book of poster art, thinking I might ask him to sign it. However after seeing how retiring he is in person, and noting that the occasion was a screening not an autograph queue, I held myself back. After the Q and A, I got a chance to speak to the director and shared my appreciation for his work in making the movie happen. The producer, editor and cinematographer were also in attendance and I wish I could have made it over to speak to them as well. I also got to shake the hand of the man himself. Because there was another film screening at the Festival in the same theater, we could not linger in the aisles. I did however force myself on him as he exited the theater and had a chance to speak to him for a few brief moments. As I'm sure he heard from a thousand other lovers of his work, I told him of my admiration for all he had accomplished. He was extremely gracious and shared with me that although he is retired from the movie painting business he still needs to work to take care of his home and family. An artist must work, their art demands it. I know that Drew Struzan does not continue to paint because he needs the money, he does it because he needs the outlet for his talent. I am just thrilled to have seen the film in a theater and even more so to have shaken the hand that produced so much of what I love about the movie poster business.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
If you find the trailer tense, wait till you see the movie. This is a film that lived up to my expectations and had a solid emotional wallop to go with it. There are beautiful moments and poignant ones but most of all there are tense interludes that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the running time. The 3D IMAX experience was well worth the extra cost because the story is really told from a first hand point of view and you get to experience that point of view in vivid detail with all of the debris and drama flying at you.
Two weeks ago, the newly refurbished Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. reopened as an IMAX venue. One of my on-line friends took his family to the one week run of the 3D version of the Wizard of Oz. After reading his glorious appreciation of the experience I was frankly envious. I would have loved to do that. I knew however that "Gravity" was scheduled to be there in the following week and I have been looking forward to this film since the first teaser. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are the whole show when it comes to actors on screen. They however are not really alone because the magicians who perform special effects magic are right there beside them. This is the most realistic vision of space we are likely to see in a fictional form. The only images that compete with it are the films done by NASA themselves. The camera work is likely to leave you dizzy but not in the way that the shaky cam has over the last ten years. The rotation of the Earth and the difficulty in finding a fixed point in space contribute to a sense of vertigo that makes the story feel more personal.
If you are wondering what fills the time in a film about astronauts cut off from their ship, don't fret. There is a very effective survival plot to go along with the events that lead to the tragedy. This is not an hour and a half mediation on man's place in the Universe as their time slowly runs out. The well trained professionals here are going to find every opportunity they can to rescue themselves. Well each of the characters may despair at one point or another, we ultimately have a powerful story of human will to survive presented to us. There are moments of surprise and quick actions accompanied by more slowly building incidents that also bring the kettle to a boil. This is a world where Murphy's Law is clearly in place and nothing can be counted on to be simple. While that seems manipulative in a film like "Armageddon" it is much more natural and easy to accept in this story.
Both actors have to do most of their work inside of the pressurized space suits that sustain life for a limited time in space. There is a plethora of digital readouts and space based images that cross the clear face-masks of the astronauts. This adds data but not enough to be distracting or to answer too many questions. There are so many details to take in at any moment that we wonder how it is that these two can keep from being overwhelmed. It is Clooney's clear and calm voice that reminds us that they have been trained and prepared for all sorts of eventualities and that this is the time that their training needs to kick in. His ability to remain focused and even at time make a well placed joke, pulls both characters back from the panic that any one of us would surely go through in the same situation.
Sandra Bullock gets the lions share of the accolades however since so much of the stories emotional impact depends on our ability to identify with her. The set up makes it clear that this is her first time in space and as a mission specialist, she has the least amount of training to handle the catastrophe. In most of her quiet moments we can see a frightened woman who is struggling with the question of how to go on in the face of overwintering odds. There is a fantastic effect when her tears float off of her face and into the camera that brings us really close to the character she is playing. I have not seen many female performances this year that would rival the work she does here without resorting to histrionics. I thought it was deeply felt and subtly conveyed. She is a movie star to be sure but she is also a very good actress.
"Gravity" is the most exciting film I have seen this year and it will certainly be a contender for a number of awards in technical fields including directing. Alfonso Cuarón has created a dynamic film that features a terrific lead performance by his female star and all the editing and camerawork should be noted as well. We have a contender here and it is also a very entertaining film.
Addendum: It suddenly dawned on me that I have not seen a film in the main house at the Chinese Theater for almost a dozen years. The last film I am certain we saw there was a press screening of "3000 Miles to Graceland" where we met both Kevin Costner and Kevin Pollock. Clearly it has been too long. The Outside of the theater continues to be a tourist destination as you can see here.
From the outside the theater has not changed at all. The foot and hand prints of the stars still line the courtyard and the crowds bend over to examine them and stand in the same spot that John Wayne or Gregory Peck stood when they were immortalized. The only things missing from the days when I used to haunt this location on a near weekly basis are the ticket booth with awning that has long gone and the giant marquee that announced in huge lettering the feature that is playing in the big theater. The only marquee now visible is the one at the street box office for the multiplex Chinese Theater located in the same complex. The theater has been taken over by a Chinese conglomerate and they have wisely upgraded the screen and the seating area but left most of the traditional trappings in place.