Friday, December 6, 2019

No Safe Spaces



This is a documentary from what would traditionally be described as the conservative perspective, but the issues are so broad and important to the culture that liberal politicians and commentators are in agreement on many points. When you have Van Jones and Barack Obama suggesting that the problem these right wingers are pointing out are real, I think we can move past the political lines and move to the cultural front that this movie wants to be focused on.

Like most documentaries about ideas, there are a lot of talking heads involved in the discussion. Talk show host Dennis Prager is a well known conservative with a nationally syndicated radio program. Adam Carolla is a comedian/podcaster with the most downloaded podcast in the world. Their friendship is based on the commonality that the world has lost it's common sense and we are forgetting our values. They may disagree on a large number of issues but the threat to free speech binds them together and they have made multiple appearances to share their views. So it is no surprise that much of the footage is derived from some of these joint appearances. The other thing that you will find in documentaries of this sort is archival footage of current and recent events. The most galvanizing moments in the film have to do with video and film of speech presentations being disrupted and violence being used to silence views that others do not agree with. There is a long segment on Berkeley as a source of some violent outbursts but it is far from the only example that is illustrated.

The thing the film does effectively is catalog the numerous recent campus based illustrations of suppressed speech and give us some perspective on how this has become a standard form of closing down dissenting views. There are a couple of clever cartoon interludes that inject some humor and a decidedly condescending view of those who want to create "safe" space or control "hate speech". Some of the talking heads that show up are well known public intellectual figures such as Cornel West and Jordan Peterson. Peterson gets a substantial amount of focus as an individual who has been subjected to much of the shouting by the other side. All of the academics who are presented in the film, regardless of their political leanings, agree that the purpose of the first amendment is to allow a market place of ideas to weed out the bad from the good, rather than presupposing the correctness of one position before a debate has even begun.

As a college instructor for 40 years, I can say from experience in my public speaking and argumentation classes that there has been a shift in the way students engage in conflict. There is a hive mentality on some issues but the bigger point is that dissenters are fearful of being socially chastised for making an argument. The issues of Illegal Immigration and Same Sex Marriage are two areas where speaking one point of view, even if addressed as a rational objectively based claims has almost disappeared. I don't see a shortage of evidence or value conflict on those points, I do see fear. Colleges are so obsessed with progressive goals that they are ignoring the means of achieving them that are progressive and have become reactionaries themselves. The film uses relatively innocuous issues that turned into major kerfuffles at Evergreen State University to illustrate the point. The experience of the two faculty members who ultimately were driven out and had to sue to get treated fairly is told in a very personal way.

Having a fairly solid position to start with the director of the movie, Justin Folk, allows the story to lose momentum in several places. The main reason is the shifting of subject matter.   Instead of a driving focus on the value issue, we get taken to a number of side issues that while interesting, seem to be interjected without figuring out how they are connected to the main point or the previous piece of information. It's not clear why Jordan Peterson is wandering around Adam Carolla's garage and car collection. Shooting Dennis Prager as he drives down the freeway must be some kind of commentary on something, but I can't tell what. As a consequence the story feels like a series of events are being strung together without a strong direction to them and that they are being randomly critiqued without the unifying theme that the movie desperately wants to have.

For true believers, this film with spark up your anger and frustrate the heck out of you. I remember how one of my coaches, John Gossett a PhD. who wrote his dissertation on prior restraint, used to emphasize that the first amendment says congress will make " NO law ...abridging the freedom of speech." The danger presented by restriction on free speech that come from non-governmental social media is the issue that needs more development, instead we got a panel discussion between five comedians without any memorable moments. This were  lost opportunities to dig deeper. I admire the desire to tackle this issue and I agree that it is significant and potentially dangerous to the country to ignore it. I just wish the skill of the writer and director had stayed more with the issues they see as important rather than throwing everything into the pot and hoping it made a stew. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Lord of the Rings: One Day Trilogy Event



As a fan of the American Cinematique and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, I look forward to big movies presented on the big screen on a regular basis. New exclusives like "The Irishman" or old favorites like "Lawrence of Arabia" make sense on the extra large screen at this theater. Yesterday however was pushing it to the extremes a little bit. All three Lord of the Rings films, in the extended editions on 35mm is really big, and frankly intimidating. This is at least a twelve hour commitment so you better not have any other plans this weekend.

It was way back in 2011 that I did posts on the extended editions and their theatrical release. Those screenings were basically extended commercials for the upcoming blu-ray release of the films. Unlike the most recent experience however, the films screened one at a time over the course of three different Tuesday nights. This was all three films in an indulgent day of film going. I was not at all shocked to see that the event was sold out and that it was heavily attended bu cosplaying fans of the series. We had to strategize a bit to work out being able to do this and survive. Fortunately, the programmers planned a thirty minute break between each film so we could run out and get something to eat or simply some fresh air before the next stage of our Middle Earth journey began.

Of the three films, my personal favorite has always been the first chapter "The Fellowship of the Ring". Peter Jackson's world building is so well set up in this film that all of the grand moments in the second and third chapters feel more natural as a result. I recognize that the whole trilogy was largely shot at the same time and we are getting three segments of one film with each entry, but you have to start somewhere and the Shire is a great start. Hobbiton and Bag's End are exactly how I envisioned them when I read the books as a kid. The one thing that took a couple of minutes to get used to was the look of the hobbits. Their depiction is a lot more subtle than my imagination but it only took a short while to adjust. This is also the simplest of narratives since the story focuses on one group for the most part and two sections of the journey. The second and third acts distribute the characters into multiple locations and time lines so they are not as elegantly straightforward as the first chapter.

"The Two Towers" seems to be a popular favorite with many on-line fans citing it as the best episode of the three. Like many second acts, the character development in this material is more substantial. There is more background on Aragorn and Merry and Pippin become characters that are more than simply the comic relief. The introduction of Gollum/Smeagol is a technical advancement and an unexpectedly poignant performance from Andy Serkis. I also think that Brad Dourif as Grimma/Wormtongue has the right amount of villainous flourish to make the film sparkle among the often grim characters. Everyone probably has a favorite character in the series, I am particularly fond of Theoden and the portrayal by Bernard Hill starts in this film and gets even better in the follow up.

We had succeeded in seeing the first two films in a 35mm format, but about a half hour into the third film, the management realized that the print they were given by the studio was the original theatrical version rather than the extended edition. After a survey of the audience, they switched to the extended edition that they had available on blu-ray. This presented two issues for the patient but tired audience. The bigger issue was that they started the film over, so that meant we sat thru the first 30 minutes a second time. This resulted in a finish for the day, well after 2 am. The other issue is that the blu ray actually has the film split on two disks, so there will be a delay break in the middle of a battle scene to make this switch. Being the owner of more than a thousand laser discs, this did not bother me at all, but you could tell that many in the audience were disconcerted about the technology.

While it is frequently lampooned for it's multiple endings, "The Return of the King" needs all of those beats to make the wrap up as satisfying as it is.  Everyone who has a part to play in the film gets some moments on the screen to shine. Boromir comes back for a flashback in the extended edition and it retroactively enriches his character in the first film. The battle scenes are the impressive feat of this chapter of the series and they are spectacular. Just as Andy Serkis was neglected at awards time, it is a shame that Sean Astin was left out of the supporting actor race, his interpretation of Sam Gamgee is definitive in my opinion and it could have been over the top but instead it was just right.

The wisdom of a thirteen plus hour commitment to a film day might be questionable but the emotional satisfaction more than compensates. I hope to catch up on a little sleep later today, but I don't regret doing this and if you love these films as well, take a chance when you get the opportunity to indulge.



Friday, November 29, 2019

Knives Out



In spite of the hype and overdone praise that this film has received, it is still a pretty basic "Who Done It?" Maybe there is a slight hint of a criticism of the 1% to make it seem socially relevant and topical. There is one scene where there is a direct discussion of current political events, but that feels like it will date the film rather than make it relevant. Writer/Director Rain Johnson would probably have been better off sticking to the traditional focus of a murder mystery, rather than trying to make it woke by including jabs at immigration policies and tax brackets.

The creative part of the film is the overlapping story of who is behind the investigation rather than who killed the victim. As told in a series of flashbacks, we see how the victim died, and it appears that there was a cover-up of an accident rather than a murder. It is only after motives get investigated that it becomes clear a crime really did occur. The intricacies of the plot are manifest in a series of vignettes that reveal what happened, what the suspects say about what happened, and what took place after those events. All of this gives a variety of actors a chance to strut their stuff on screen and create a collection of self centered privileged characters that we can smirk at for their foibles.

Christopher Plummer gets a second chance to play a rich octogenarian with issues surrounding his heirs. He turns in a slight but joyful performance. While he is not in the film long, there are some great moments that he shares with each of the main characters. Harlan Thrombey does not seem to be malicious in the decisions he is making regarding his family, but he is less concerned with his family than he is with his personal desires. Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette all are given reasons to want to see him dead, but is he really murdered? What Johnson has done with his story is to find an alternative approach to the primary motivation. Daniel Craig as celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc is brought in to determine what really happened, but why he is there and who is paying is the mystery.

Ana de Arnas plays the old man's nurse/companion who becomes a prime suspect but also the victim of persecution. The fact that she comes from an immigrant family and is not part of the rich inner circle is the thing that tries to establish some social credentials. It's a shorthand plot device that works but in the long run, her families legal status is a distraction to the story rather than a justification for giving this movie any weight.  Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are the quirky spice in the blend. Don Johnson could have been playing the Chris Evans role thirty years ago, so it does feel like the casting decisions were right. Craig's accent is laid on a little thick but since so much of the film attempts a comic edge I guess it works well enough.

About halfway through, I figured out who the antagonist really is, it's not hard given the story structure. The real question is what are their motivations for choosing the course of action that was taken. The complex legal conundrum is brought up in the funniest scene where a welcome performance by Frank Oz, addresses the consequences of the dead man's will. The extended scene is where half of the laughs in the movie can be located, not because there are jokes but because characters act out of their natures. This is a place where Johnson's ideas stretch us a bit but do entertain us.

The film is a solid mystery puzzle and there are some good laughs to be had, but people suggesting that this is one of the great films of the year are over selling it to you. Go in with reasonable expectations of being entertained and you will be fine.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary



The producers of this film included a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet. The comment basically says there are only 4 perfect movies: The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth and Galaxy Quest. On that last one, I am certainly inclined to agree. This throw away movie that was sold as a kids film for the Christmas holidays is so much better than it has any right to be. For the twenty years since it was initially released, "Galaxy Quest" has grown in stature and seems to be beloved by millions who may have missed it on it's first release.

This documentary traces the development of the movie and the twists and turns it took to become a cultural touchstone. This comes from a fan driven group and that makes perfect sense because "Galaxy Quest" is a love letter to fandom and it may well have cleared the path to widespread acceptance of geek culture in the broader population. "The Big Bang Theory" and the "MCU" would not have nearly the resonance they do if Galaxy Quest had not blazed the trail for them.

Like many documentaries, the movie is loaded with talking heads who recall the events and personalities that are part of the story. Every major surviving cast member is included in the conversations. Sigourney Weaver is effusive in he love for the project and how it allowed her to play a comedic role that she sees as a lot closer to her true persona than the iconic character of Ripley really is. Sam Rockwell was almost unknown when he took the part, after having turned it down several times. He reasoned that it might be a good piece of counter-programming to show his range as "The Green Mile" was coming out around the same time. Tim Allen  probably had his finest role as an actor playing the William Shatner inspired lead character.

The Producer, screenwriter, director, casting director, production designer, editor and composer all have stories to share about the film and many of them are hysterical. The movie is generously supplied with clips from Galaxy Quest itself, along with Star Trek moments and a variety of other material. There is also an elaborate thread about the fans of Galaxy Quest, and the documentary trails a couple of fans who cosplay their way across the universe in salute to this pitch perfect film. We get a chance to see how fans become part of the story and how they were the original inspiration for the film in the first place.

The climax of the film brings the fans and the makers of the movie together at a celebratory screening of the film. It just so happens that I was at that screening along with my wife, daughter and my Southern California blogging colleague Michael, who brought his daughter the the screening as well. I covered the showing two years ago with some more details. Last night when we saw the documentary, we were delighted to note that we make a guest star appearance in the film. Amanda's Jaws shirt and my Hawaiian style blue shirt are clearly visible in the crowd scenes as the Thermains arrived for the screening of the film. I have been a long time fan of Galaxy Quest, I took the whole family as our Christmas day movie in 1999. One of the things I remember speaking to them all about was that the aspect ration of the film changed three times in the movie. It was nice to hear that confirmed by the director, since the DVD presentation does not always allow you to notice that change.

I'm not one to disagree with David Mamet. I think he is certainly right when he includes this movie on a list of perfect films. In fact I did the same thing six years ago on a post I entitled "Three Perfect Movies". If you check it out you will see I was with Mamet on this one early on. The documentary was accompanied by a long introduction from the Fandom group that put it together. If it is ever available to people on line or in physical form, I hope they will include the interactions of the writers for the site and the "Honest Trailer" they put together for the film. They were quite entertaining as well. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Doctor Sleep



Thirty-five years ago, someone created a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, using material from the original author of the piece. It seemed foolish to try to ride the tailcoats of Kubrick's Masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey", but "2010: The Year We Make Contact" was not a disaster and it did make a little money. Well, writer/director Mike Flanagan has attempted the same feat. Kubrick's "The Shining" had a sequel written for it by original author Stephen King, and that story has been adapted to make this sequel almost forty years later.

"Doctor Sleep" is substantially different in tone from "The Shining". The single location of the first film made it feel like a Gothic haunted house story, although there are many elements of the "shine" that are present. King was famously dissatisfied with the Kubrick approach. While I never read the novel, I suspect his unhappiness stemmed from the minimal relationship of the psychic ability of Danny Torrance to the film story. That may in fact be why King returned to the characters, so that he could elaborate on the mystery of "Shining" and not simply be trapped in the haunted hotel.

This story does start off at the time of the original events, and there are a couple of moments recreated for the prologue, but we quickly move forward thirty years to Danny Torrance as an adult. He is a troubled man who has been haunted by the spirit of the house that he feels has pursued him over the years. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny and he wanders aimlessly until another spirit visits him and he commits to a fresh start with new friends and no chemical solutions to his anxiety. As his story is playing out we are introduced to a new group of people who seem to thrive on those that shine. At first it is unclear whether they are spirits or something else. Ultimately, this group of wanderers lead by the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson, turns out to be the antagonists in a deadly hunt of those who can "shine" and those who use the shiners for their own purposes. It's basically a vampire story with creatures that are human but who have supernatural abilities. It certainly is a horror story, but it is not the slow burn descent into madness that the original focused on.

The strengths of the story ,as told in the film, are first and foremost McGregor, who has to be desperate, sometime despicable and ultimately re-deemed. The character is strongest in the scenes where he is working as an orderly in a hospice, and conversing with those who are soon making the trip to the other side. He develops the sympathy and heroic nature that he will need when the story leads him to direct confrontation. Cliff Curtis, a familiar supporting actor and welcome presence helps steady Danny in the road to empowering his Shining Skills. Inevitably there is a figure that brings the two sides into conflict. I won't spoil the horror for you but suffice it to say, it involves children, and that is introduced as a theme early on but taken to it's most horrifying place mid-way through the film. 

Modern film techniques allow directors to do things that seem physically impossible. The CGI moments remind us of that impossibility. That is one of the reasons that practical effects are so important, because they tie a sense of reality to the impossible. Two sequences in the film took be out of the story a bit because of the computer work. One involves a young girl rotating a house and levitating, this was preceded by an episode with spoons years earlier. Both of these moments would have worked more in a frightening way if they had more practical elements to them. "Shining" moments are less problematic because we are in a fantasy world at that point so the lack of reality is less egregious.

Just like how 2010 took the metaphysical world of it's predecessor and moved it into a traditional political conflict, Flanagan  and King take the supernatural horror from the first story and turn it into an action story, and it works. There are moments of horror in this film that are shocking for sure but it will be most noted for the game playing being done by two sides that we get to understand pretty well. It feels like an adaption of a complex universe that has been created in a book, and I think it is largely successful at turning that material into something cinematic. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Midway (2019)



This was a movie that I really wish I'd gotten to for the Veteran's Day Holiday. It is a no frills salute to the Navy forces that sustained the fight in the Pacific in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It hews closely to the timeline of events and the key players in the Battle of Midway which happened just six months after the surprise attack and largely changed the fortunes of war for the American side. A combination of hard work, rage and intuitive luck resulted in a complete reversal of the naval status of the two nations in a very short time.

Director Roland Emmerich is known for the disaster films he has made. Whatever his dramatic limitations are, he knows how to blow things up and show destruction on a massive scale. With this subject he has found an effective outlet for his skillset. There is a reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent Japanese attacks on China and in the Corral Sea. All of this is a lead up to the title battle which takes up the last part of the film.

There is a narrative that focuses on the life of Navy flyer Dick Best, a real hero from the period. The fact that ther is a personal story however does not make this like the other war films you have seen over the years. We get just enough of his homelife and personal doubts to see that he is a human being in this large scale picture of the war. Similarly, there is a slight story about the intelligence officer who had warned about potential dangers at Pearl Harbor before the attack, and his subsequent work with code breakers to try and determine where the next big event would be. Actor Ed Skrein plays Best as a no nonsense family man who also is fearless enough to intimidate those he is in command of. Patrick Wilson plays the quiet intelligence guy who's guilt over the Pearl Harbor mess forces him to challenge establishment thinking about the war.

There are not quite as many personal touches for the Japanese commanders but they are presented in honest ways, suggesting their commitment and honor in what is a truly tragic us of resources. This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened. As a history lesson it is pretty effective. It is not hard for us to follow events and see how the strategy for Midway was evolved by both sides. Of course the thing that makes it cinematic is the CGI spectacle that we see as the conflict plays out. It is clear that this is a CGI heavy film, the work is competent but it is at times noticeable. The scale of destruction that happens probably could not be presented any other way these days in a budget that is manageable. Unlike "Saving Private Ryan", "Midway presents the destruction without all the visceral horror that modern effects and make up are capable of. There are a few scenes where fire injuries are shown but there are no closeups on the wounded and the dead which are meant to turn our stomachs. This is a film that largely could have been made in the 1950s for it's sensibilities.

Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, and Dennis Quaid play major historical figures, but most of their work is really background, with only a little bit of drama involved. Once again, we are presented with a reason to be eternally grateful to the "Greatest Generation".  As far as I'm concerned that is justification enough to see the movie. The history lesson is also solid and it makes this a film that could be appropriately shown as part of a school curriculum. The drama is soft pedaled but the hard fought war and the losses that it entailed are worth a visit.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Last Christmas



Probably everyone goes through a part of their life when every decision we make is a bad one, no good turn goes unpunished, or simply we string together a series of hardships that make our lives seem worthless. I've heard that the holiday season is also the season where there is the most depression, because in part, we are surrounded by good feelings that we don't share in as much. Sadness about lost opportunities and relationships get magnified by the cheerful goings on around us and as a consequence, the down feelings get exaggerated. Now, imagine that you have some of that sadness and you are immersed in Christmas all year long. That is the premise of this romantic comedy/drama starring Emilia Clarke.

Kate (Katarina as her Mother prefers) works in a shop that sells Christmas items all year long. Everyday she is dressed as an elf and encounters people who are in a good enough mood that they will shop for unusual Christmas ornaments, even in the summer. The problem is, a year before, Kate had a medical emergency. We are not told exactly what it was in the early part of the film because that would tip off some of the turn that is coming at the end. Frankly, when it did get revealed, I started to immediately wonder how it was going to connect everything. I will admit I went in a different direction in my thinking than the script does, but not too far away, so the story does have a bit of logic to it. I do think it is a bit of a cheat but I am very forgiving of those things with a movie that wants nothing more than to make you feel good. Anyway, Kate's medical procedure has left her an em optional wreck, capable of doing dumb things and completely ignoring the destruction that is left in her wake.

In a way, this is another retelling of a "Christmas Carol", where the spirit of the holiday is called on to redeem a person who has lost their way. Henry Golding plays Tom, a man who appears in Kate's life and seems to be pointing her in some different directions. His character is not exactly the opposite of hers but in a ying/yang way he compliments her needs. Tom is meticulous, graceful and always looking for the bright side in things. The mess that Kate is making with her life needs some of that direction. Kate has friends but she is burning through them as a way of avoiding her Mother, an overprotective and equally thoughtless woman. Emma Thompson plays the mother, she also co-wrote the script for the movie. Her character could be a villain but it turns out she is just as lost and depressed as Kate is, just in different ways.

The movie is filled with characters that we can enjoy in small amounts without taking away from Kate's story. The crew and clients at the homeless shelter where Kate ends up spending time are probably a little "too Hollywood" homeless, but it is a Christmas movie and we don't want to be confronted too much with drugs and mental illness. Kate's boss is one of the great pleasures of the film. Michelle Yeoh is "Santa" the owner of the shop where Kate works. She appears to be flinty and judgmental of Kate's life, but it turns out she has deeper thoughts about Kate than anyone else has managed to express. She also just needs to be prompted to let her soft side out, and when it does come out, it is a joy.

Every year we get holiday films that try to move us and inspire us to be better people. This movie wants to be "Love Actually", but it does not quite reach those heights. It does however try in a sincere way to be that kind of movie, and it's shortcomings are small enough to be forgiven. "Last Christmas" may not be a perennial film for everyone, but it is pleasant enough to start the holiday season with. It also manages to make the Wham/George Michael song tolerable for an hour and forty minutes, and that is some kind of accomplishment.





Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Right Stuff with Phillip Kaufman




For Veteran's Day we celebrated by attending a special screening of "The Right Stuff" , sponsored by American Legion Post 43 and the American Cinemateque. Before the show however, we took advamtage of an opportunity to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum, across the street. The event planners arranged for a two hour window for guests to stop by this intimate little piece of history after regular hours.

The Barn, as it is referred to , contains materials from the earliest Hollywood studio, founded by some of the giants of the industry including Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille. 







If you are a film fan, it is a great place to stop for an hour or so, which is about as much time as we stayed before moving on over to the American Legion post.

Amanda and I had been in the theater at the Legion Hall back during the TCMFF in April. The building is a fascinating structure that dates back decades and has intimate spaces in the basement as well as the beautiful theater on the main floor. I'd noticed on my check in on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends was also in attendance. Lawrence Kaplowitz is a gentleman I follow on Facebook, I joined a TCM fan page and he posts there regularly. I located him and his new bride a few rows in front of us and I went up and introduced myself in real life. We chatted for a few minutes and it was nice to speak with another film fan in Southern California who has some of the same interests as I.





In addition to all that I have described, and the movie were were about to see, the event was special because it was being introduced by the writer/director of the movie Phillip Kaufman himself. Author and Legionaire Alan Rode, interviewed Mr. Kaufman about the film for nearly forty minutes. We heard about the casting process and the relationship he developed with Chuck Yeager. The clever use of traditional old school special effects techniques to simulate the aircraft and launches was interesting. He also briefly touched on the prior script by William Goldman and discussed why he felt it was necessary to change it. Ultimately he wanted that first hour to be about the test pilots that made having "the right stuff" so important, especially Yeager.



Kaufman did say actress Veronica Cartwright was in attendance last night but I did not get an opportunity to see her. All of the actors got a round of applause as their names came up in the credits. This was a 35mm presentation and it looked and sounded great.


If you want to read an LA Times article on this event, I have linked it for you here.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-09/the-right-stuff-blasts-off-for-a-veterans-day-screening-in-hollywood






The Film

"The Right Stuff" is one of two films from the 1980s [the second being Amadeus] that I would include on my top ten list of all time. It was in fact my wife's favorite movie and I did have a few moments of wistful nostalgia as it played out. She spent her first few years as a child in the high desert area. Her brother worked at Edwards Air Force base and the China Lake Weapons Station. We visited the museum there, where you can see the original X-1. 

The story of the launch of the space program is of interest to all but especially to we baby boomers who lived through that time. We knew the astronauts and watched the launches and followed the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs closely. The film manages to make each of the original seven astronauts interesting, although in the big picture of the film Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter  end up in the background. Shepard, Glenn, Grissom and Cooper are the main pillars of the story. I think the standout performance is Fred Ward as the gruff and unfairly judged Gus Grissom. My colleague on the Lambcast does not like Dennis Quaid but I find him perfectly cast here and he provides much of the humor that makes this film so memorable and real. 

Bill Conti's score is triumphant and patriotic and exactly right for the tone the film is pursuing. There is effective use of source music as well and this was my introduction to Holst's "The Planets". 

I wrote about this film for my series "Movies I Want Everyone to See" and I urge you to visit that post to get a more complete discussion of the film. 






Monday, November 11, 2019

The Irishman



Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of "Roma" based on the premise that it is not "cinema". This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike "Roma" however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or "films" made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.

Last night's screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.

"Mean Streets" was low level street gangsters, "Goodfellas" was gangsters on drugs, "Casino" was gangsters and gambling, "The Departed" was gangsters with police corruption, "Gangs of New York" was historical gangsters and "The Irishman" is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for "GoodFellas" and "Casino" is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in "Goodfellas" was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both "Goodfellas" and "Casino", no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in "Casino" there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. "The Irishman" does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.

Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing.  Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to.   Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable.  The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.

The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro's on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran's family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can't really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it's only enough to make Pacino's character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.

Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don't think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.

In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, "that was a milestone" in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Jo Jo Rabbit



This may be on two distinct sets of lists at the end of the year. Some folks are going to find that it is a misfire that fails to manage the complex shift in tone that occurs on a regular basis in the story. Others will be beguiled by the delicate balancing act between the sweet and the bitter. It took me to the last couple of shots to decide which group I am going to fall into. Count me enchanted.

The lead character, Jo Jo is a ten year old boy who is a microcosm of Germany under Hitler. He seems to be hypnotized by the promise of the Fuhrer and the propaganda machine that engulfs the whole country. Little boys and nations can become obsessed with symbolism, and the swastika, uniforms and military pomp all sucker the crowds in. Taika Waititi has punctured these concepts with obvious asides about the stupidity of some of the things the boy and the country are buying into. That humor is often outlandish and it does provoke a big laugh on numerous occasions.  The dangerous high wire act he is performing exists because that humor is often juxtaposed with a horrifying reality. Even though those moments of tragedy are presented in non-graphic ways, it is a sudden jolt to the left that might upset the balance of the story at any time.

By making the lead a ten year old, the whole metaphor can be looked at as a loss of innocence on the one hand, but it is also a rude awakening at the same time. Since Jo Jo gets a Rabbit to interact with and he is designated as a rabbit by some of the other characters, I guess it is fair to classify this story as a fable. In many ways it has the same sort of fairy tale essence to it that "Life is Beautiful" had. The harsh realities of the world are being covered up by a childish view of the events surrounding our lead. That his imaginary friend is Hitler himself makes the story feel completely absurd. Sure we laugh at the amusing image of Hitler jumping out a window or sitting down to a meal of unicorn, but each moment is building toward the shakeup that will be so heartbreaking at the climax of the film. Sam Rockwell acquits himself with the usual high caliber comic performance he has been noted for, but he gets to pay off some actual sentiment in the end. Rebel Wilson is merely a cartoon in the movie, but it is a funny cartoon that we will never have to take seriously.

Straddling the gap between sweet fantasy and morbid reality is Scarlett Johansson as Jo Jo's mother.  She is an indulgent mother who vaguely disapproves of her son's embrace of Nazism, but she is also an enigma, one that presents us with a reality far from the domestic bliss she is trying to project. Waititi himself plays Hitler, and at times he is cloyingly obtuse and at other moments we hear the rhetorical weapons he used to seduce a whole nation being wielded against a child. If you hold your neck too straight in the curves, you may break it. The trick is to lean into the humor but try to ease back from it before the next breakneck switch in tone. I was able to do this more effectively as the film went on and I got used to the sort of whiplash inducing moments writer/director/star Waititi had in store for us. I can easily imagine though that some people will find it annoying.

Roman Griffin Davis makes his debut as the title character and the performance is essential for the movie to work. He has to be a kid who is both incredibly sure of his grounds while simultaneously doubting the foundation he is standing on. He hits those notes especially well with his interactions with costar Thomasin McKenzie. She plays a belligerent and sarcastic version of an Anne Frank character, and she must be stern but frightened at the same time. That the director got these performances from his cast is what allows us to go along with the story. Ultimately, it is a hopeful interpretation of the minds of the German population under the Nazis. If would be easy to dismiss it as a tasteless concoction that never quite gels, but I think in the last few minutes, it firms up into one of the best films of the year. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Lighthouse



If you were to take "Brokeback Mountain" and cross it with "The Shining" and add a little Herman Melville to the mix, you might get what this picture attempts to be. It is sort of a sea shanty about madness from isolation. Now sprinkle in a little tentacle sex and you start to get a clearer picture. What I have given you here is a far more coherent description of the film than you will get from watching it for 109 minutes. This pretentious piece of dreck has little to offer and everything to frustrate.

I will be honest, I was not a fan of the much admired first film from writer director Robert Eggers. "The VVitch" was slow, ponderous and the end of the film undermined what the movie seemed to be trying to accomplish. I don't know what this movie was trying to do, but I can tell you what it did for me, it pissed me off. Both of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe, dive in whole-heartedly to the proceedings, with Dafoe  hamming up the arcane dialect in a manner worthy of a pirate movie. Half of the dialogue will get lost in the style of delivery, but it won't matter because there is no consistent voice to what you are seeing anyway. Oh, and by the way, you won't be seeing nearly as much as you should. Eggers has decided to shoot this film in black and white, mainly at night, in a location with one source of illumination that can't be turned into the camera.

At one point one of the characters suggests that the whole experience was just in the head of the other character. That would have been an indicator of where we might go, except that a dozen other things happen which suggest that the two characters might even be the same person. Which doesn't make any sense even in a horror film, which this may or may not be classified as. I had no idea what the story was about, all I knew was that the two actors are in a lighthouse. After watching the damn thing, that's still app I really know. The camera pans up slowly, then it holds on something for a while, then it pulls back, and then there is a close up, none of which contributes to suspense, terror or drama. There were some people laughing, so maybe it is supposed to be a comedy, but it did not strike me as funny at all.

It looks like I will be an outlier on this, there are great ratings on many of the mega sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I will try to listen to some of my fellow bloggers and podcasters as they talk about this, but if you hear a foghorn in the background it may simply be me calling "bullll...shiiit." If I see Mr. Eggers name on future projects, I will be sure to let those who appreciate his torpid style and incoherent narratives enjoy themselves. I'll be looking for something human beings might like. 

Zombieland Double Tap



The original Zombieland was a joy 10 years ago. It came out a year before I started keeping this blog so I never included it in any rankings or evaluations, but it certainly would have been on a list of my favorite films from 2009. I was pleased with the idea of a sequel, but the notionthat it would take ten years to get here never crossed my mind. As it is, the timing seems just right. The way the story develops, there is some character justification for actions, ten years into the zombie apocalypse.

I said I would keep today's entires short, and that's easy to do with this film. It has the same sensibility Director Ruben Fleiser had a big success with last year's "Venon", a film I never felt a strong need to see. This on the other hand is right up my alley and if you liked the first Zombieland, than D"DoubleTap" is for you. It has the off kilter humor, the action pacing of the first film, and some reasonable reasons for existing. There are a few new wrinkles and Woody Harrelson gets to vent against the kind of person he probably is in real life.

If you are an Elvis fan, there are things which you will enjoy. There is some non-partisan political humor, and best of all, there is a surprise sequence at the end which people who get out of their seats and race out the door will miss, and they will hate themselves for that. This movie completely fulfilled my hopes and expectations. It should be on repeat play at the house in the not too distant future.





Judy



I am potentially doing four posts today so I plan on keeping each of them brief. I will be gone for a week or so and I want these to be fresh for anyone who is interested.

Biopics can be hit or miss. The personality of the subject may be the biggest factor in their success, but you should never underestimate the importance of casting and performance. J.Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney did not get a proper treatment, one because of miscasting and the other due to the script. I've seen some criticism of this movie as being uninspiring, but I think it works the way a lot of these biopics do, by focusing on a particular point in the subject's life. Darkest Hour and Lincoln both did that and succeed, I think for the most part Judy accomplishes it's task in the same way.

The film focus is on the period of time she was performing in London, less than half a year away from her death. There are a few flashback sequences, but the main story is set near the end of her life.  I made a comparison that might seem a bit strange when I was talking about this film, it reminded me of "Joker". The subject is the emotional and mental breakdown of of our subject. The childhood abuses in both stories are mentioned, but the real tragedy is the self destructive behavior that each is unable to extract themselves from. The audience will be frustrated by the wrong turn that the character makes and that is where we will feel the most emotional connection to the film.

Renée Zellweger is well cast with the kwepie doll face and diminutive stature. She nails Garlands voice and as far as I could tell, many of her mannerisms. The vocal performances are also very impressive. She is not recreating the original versions of the songs, but how those songs might have sounded at this stage of Garland's life and her physical stamina. I think come awards time her name will be prominently featured. I hope along that of her costar here Jessie Buckley, who turned in my favorite performance this year in "Wild Rose". That the two of them appear in this movie together is kind of a treat.

There may be things in the film that are not historically accurate but the movie feels emotionally accurate. The main performance is enough to recommend it but I think there is more than just the performance, it is a well crafted story of talent and self destruction. Probably a well worn path at this point in pop culture. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Eight Legged Freaks


[Originally Published on Fog's Movie Reviews, Fall 2013]
Here is a Halloween Special for you all.


There is a long history of movies where nature strikes back at the human world. From the "Island of Lost Souls" to "The Happening", Mother Nature proves that she is not someone to be messed with. (Although running away from the wind may just be the one way to mess with her that would cause her to crack up and just stop trying to wipe us out). The most fertile period of time for these far fetched stories was the post war atomic age when exposure to radiation causes giant ants, killer rabbits, and irritated amphibians. In the lengthy annals of horror films featuring monsters that are simply real creatures pushed to the brink, no animal, fish or insect has been more widely used to terrify us than the spider. Most people instinctively withdraw their hands from proximity to a spider. The hair on the back of our necks raises at the thought of one normal spider crawling across our flesh. It is therefore no surprise that out sized spiders have been a go-to critter whenever a film maker is looking for a way to scare us. Our fear of spiders is also something that is regularly mocked. In "Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character jokes " Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick." It is this combination of the frightening and the ridiculous that makes "Eight Legged Freaks" a movie that I want everyone to see.


025158_6This 2002 horror comedy has a enough to recommend it despite being cheesy as hell and way over the top. While there are a couple of legitimate scares and  plenty of creepiness to make this a fun horror film for anyone who doesn't want their terror too gory, the biggest selling point is the humor. This film is a hoot and should give you a couple of laughs to brush off the ickiness of watching spiders. Most of the laughs are intended unlike some other films in this unique category. A small dying Arizona town ends up being over run by spiders that have been contaminated by toxic waste.  It seems a spider wrangler named Joshua is planning on making a fortune selling these quickly growing arachnids to collectors and spider enthusiasts. The creepy Joshua is played by genre veteran Tom Noonan. His friendship with the bright preteen son of the local sheriff allows a little time for exposition on the spiders and their habits, once that is done, exit Joshua after providing a convenient start to the story. There is not much doubt that we will need that information later, because we get some nice quick little illustrations of what each breed of spider is capable of. Unfortunately, young Mike falls into "Wesley Crusher" syndrome and becomes the one source of knowledge that anyone needs for the rest of the movie.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442581-2100-1377 Mike's mother is the sheriff and she has eyes for the returning son of the deceased owner of the local mine. A largely superfluous romantic plot that gives star David Arquette something more to do when he is not reacting to big damn spiders.
Most of the plot details don't matter because the movie is an excuse to use CGI spiders that are huge and have them do creepy things to the locals. The number of other films referenced here is pretty substantial. There is a "Dawn of the Dead" vibe based around the location the locals choose to make their stand against the spiders. "Gremlins" is cribbed from as the spiders begin to overtake the town. The 1950s creature features are acknowledged with a clip from "Them!" playing on the TV in the background of one scene. "Eight Legged Freaks" plays out sometimes like a Frankenstein version of a horror film with a part inserted here and some leftover ideas from there being added on.

So if the movie is derivative and it is not really scary, what is it that would make you need to see it? The answer is twofold; fun shots of CGI Spiders and occasional Three Stooges type humor. The weaker of the two elements are the jokes. It is a hit or miss proposition, For every well placed L.Ron Hubbard crack, there is a bad piece of camera mugging by one of the actors. There is a cute oblique reference to a Monty Python Parrot sketch and then at some other point there is a slightly unfunny double take done by Doug E. Doug. Arquette actually ad-libbed his line about the big bugs being "eight legged freaks" and it is one of the pieces of dialogue that works and it became the title of the film as a result. If only all of the script's dialogue had had that sense of crazy frustration. There are a few too many Alien conspiracy jokes that involve anal probes. The film is directed at a tween audience, so there are romantic subplots and potty humor. This would be a pretty good Halloween Film for your 8 to 12 year old kids.
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The stronger argument for seeing the film concerns the spider shots. There are some cool ideas that work despite the ancient CGI technology involved. At one point a teen is being chased by spiders that can jump twenty yards at a time, he rides his motorbike through the hills and makes a jump himself that has a fun kick to it. Of course a dozen other kids get taken and are never heard from or referenced again. This is a comedy after all not really a horror show. The old barber who take refuge in the sporting goods shop, is followed by an animated tent across the floor of the store. It is a corny joke that works because none of this is being taken seriously. Even the sections where you don't actually see the spiders are visually interesting. Trap door spiders start taking down ostriches at a local ranch and the vanishing birds are the punchline. There is a great showdown between a cat and one of the big spiders that takes place inside the walls of the deputies home. It is visualized in an amusing way and it sets the tone for the film early in the stages of the spider invasion.


Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442634-2100-1153The initial stages of the spider invasion feels like that section of "Gremlins" when the gruesome little monsters take over the town. All hell breaks loose and there are panicked citizens running through the streets. Some people get wiped out and others stare in disbelief as it happens. Then they run and some comic bit with a spider trying to eat a stuffed moose-head is inserted. The lead up to the town being over run is sometimes not as fun as it should be but once the shooting of spiders starts the mayhem turns into the goofy monster-fest the film has wanted to be from the beginning.


EightLeggedMall
The last act of the film features a march of arachnids not seen since "Starship Troopers". Hundreds of giant spiders crawl over the screen and the locals try to shoot, squash, stab, fry and puncture them. Plenty of green splatter fills the edges of the movie, instead of the blood that would be there from the humans being shredded. The use of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" as a musical motif keeps things light in spite of the dozens of casualties the townsfolk run up during the attack.

As I re-watched this, I experienced many cringe worthy moments of humor that failed and acting that isn't. The kids in the movie are wooden, including a very young Scarlett Johansson. Her next movie would feature that shot of her behind that opens "Lost in Translation", but here she is playing a little younger and sexy is not really the mood they were looking for. David Arquette is better suited for a role like the weird deputy in "Scream" than he is for playing action hero. Doug E. Doug and Rick Overton are the comic relief and both of them mug shamelessly for the camera. The human element is not the movies strong suit.  Don't worry though because big ass spiders are coming and once they start overrunning the town, you will have a pretty fun time.

There are better horror films and there are better horror comedies. "Arachnophobia" may be the best analogous movie but it lacks spiders  the size of a tank and visuals of people being dragged off and spun into webs. Even though this is the mildest recommendation I have yet made for "Movies I Want Everyone to See", there is something that makes me push the button for this movie. It's probably just that I'm tickled by shots like this:Wallpaper-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442625-800-600
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Monday, October 21, 2019

John Carpenter's "The Thing" at the Million Dollar Theater

Let me give you a list here; "Lawrence of Arabia", "Alien", "The Thing", "Dune", "The Man who Would be King".  Can you guess what all of these films have in common? If you have been a regular on this site you will probably figure it out. These are films, that I will never pass up an opportunity to see on the big screen. It's not simply that they are among my favorites, they all have qualities that make a theater presentation worthwhile. Yesterday was a chance to once again experience John Carpenter's masterpiece of science fiction horror in it's natural environment, 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide.

This trip was a lot more than just a screening of the film however, it was a chance to go back in Los Angeles History a little bit. L.A. rightfully is criticized by some as not being a city so much as a collection of neighborhoods. There is a downtown section, and it does resemble a big city, but for many years it has been neglected. The classic movie palaces that lined Broadway have not necessarily been maintained as well as they might, but more and more, the residents of the city have begun to appreciate these venues and they are being reused for a variety of purposes. I think I visited the Million Dollar Theater as a child, but I know I have not been there in more than a half century. This month however, Cinema Phantasmagoria is offering horror films at the theater, along with an immerse experience, plus a tour if you are so inclined. So who can resist?



Parking in Downtown L.A. is iffy most days but Sunday evening it was exceptionally packed in the lot we chose, which was just around the corner from the theater.

We were about 45 minutes early to the tour time we had scheduled so we took a side trip to a different part of L.A. history, we went across the street to the Bradbury Building. Movie fans will recognize the inside of the lobby of this building from dozens of films. Two fairly prominent examples are "Double Indemnity" and "Blade Runner".


The interior continues to be spectacular, and it's use in "Blade Runner" also made it relevant to this post because the theater is prominently seen as Rick Deckard is entering the building for his confrontation with Roy Batty.



Our view of the theater from the front of the building shows only a few changes to the Marquee but otherwise the location and the general look are the same.



After we checked in, we went on the "haunted" backstage tour of the theater. Entering in a creepy alleyway on one side, we went into dressing rooms, the green room and several locations where a mysterious death occurred at the theater. The story is part of the charm of the tour so I will not repeat it here, but it does enhance the history of the theater a bit. 



The prologue to the movie was not as elaborate as in the old days but there were costumed characters doing some skits as part of the haunted theme. "Archie" was our host and he invited one of the other dead ushers up to share some talent.


When the movie finally started it was the same great experience that has frightened fans for 37 years now. The dog in the opening section is really the best actor on screen during that time. The dozen guys who make up the camp are also pretty darn good. 

It was just a couple years ago that I wrote about this film for a screening at the Egyptian Theater. That presentation featured a 70mm print that had not been modified so the colors were off from it's original presentation in 1982. Still it had a lot to recommend it, including the awesome soundtrack and the correct aspect ration. I'm certain this was a digital presentation, there were no film signatures and the screen reflected no wear and tear at all. The sound was solid but not as impressive as the system and acoustics at the American Cinematique.

Three sequences of horror always standout when I watch this film. The first is the discovery of the alien organism as it attempts to take over the other dogs in the pack shed. As great as the special effects are, it is the dog trainer's talent that comes through the most in this sequence. Those "real" dogs seem to be terrified and struggling to get away. The one dog trying to yank the chain link fencing of the kennel apart is particularly convincing. The sound effects here add to the confusion and fear among the human team, as the animals sound pitiful and frightening at the same time.

A second scene that gets us jacked up with fear adrenaline is the moment that Charles Hallahan's character of Norris appears to be having a heart attack, and the Doctor tries using a defibrillator on him. We are treated to a gaping chest cavity opening up and chewing off the Doctors arms, but even more gruesomely, Norris's head becomes it's own entity, springing legs and crawling around like some nightmarish spider.  David Clennon's Palmer has maybe the most quotable line from the movie at that point.  


The third great sequence has less to do with Rob Bottin's brilliant special effects and make up, but rather the suspense that goes along with it. As each of the characters tied to the couch awaits the verdict from the blood test, we feel tension mounting. The discovery that one of the guys there is not really their co-worker but a manufactured version, we get a visual treat to go along with it, but the payoff is another quote that got a great audience reaction. Garry, the CO played by Donald Moffat shares a controlled piece of impatience and then explodes with a stinger that provokes laughter. 

We can have a discussion about the ambiguity of the conclusion of the film some other time. For now, I am going to wrap this up with a few more pictures of the venue to commemorate a great Sunday evening in October.



  

Monday, October 14, 2019

40th Anniversary Screening Alien



I know I am an old man in comparison to most of those doing movie blogs, but it is still hard for me to believe that it has been forty years since "Alien" first showed up on screen. It sure does not look like a 40 year old film, with maybe the exception of some computer graphics. This movie is one of the great examples of production design enhancing the movie at every turn. Since I have written about this film before, I'm going to try and develop some of the aspects of the movie that may be sometimes overlooked but are crucial to making it work.

H.R. Geiger and Jean 'Moëbius' Giraud deserve the rightful praise for the creature and environmental design work they did. Oscar nominees Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian and Ian Whittaker should also be saluted for turning this movie into a template for future Science Fiction films. The first character we met in the movie is The Nostromo, a mining ship returning from an extended mission to the outer rim of the galaxy. There is a long slow pan across the outside of the ship that moves across it's underbelly and shows us the haphazard placement of unidentified technology that makes up the ship. When we slip inside the vehicle, the camera moves around dark dank corridors of the mining platform, through to the command module of the ship and then to the crew quarters. There are empty coffee cups and food containers and a variety of nick knacks that might be left around by a group of people on a long term project. We can see objects on stands shimmy with the movement of the space craft, and there is one of those perpetual dunking ducks, that is still working, even as the crew slumbers in hibernation. As the computer comes on with new instructions to awaken the crew, we see the screen reflected on the visor of a flight helmet. This is an interior that we come to understand. It is complex but also well used. 

The hibernation chamber is probably the cleanest hi-tech room we see, and after that, the med-lab. When you get into the mining platform, it is all dark corridors and steam pipe fittings and condensation falling like rain down on equipment and people. The escape shuttle looks sufficiently cramped and dark so it was not hard to imagine why Ripley did not see the Alien tucked into a tight space at the start of her escape. Of course the vessel on the planet is also a design of gargantuan proportions and it is otherworldly through and through. 

For other comments on the film, let me direct you first to my original project, where Alien was the focus of the 11th post I did.  Four years ago I did a special screening of "Alien" and "Aliens" at the Egyptian theater, which included some special effects guests and was very good. 

 

It was a nice day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this essential film.