Saturday, September 26, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music


So 29 years after our last dose of Bill and Ted, we get a sequel that is not needed for the story to feel complete, but feels like it is needed in these times. The world seems like it is a mess. Covid, violent protests, Political Division, and natural disasters galore. The whole planet could use a break and a movie like this fits the circumstances nicely. There is no agenda here, the closest the story comes to reflecting our times is the notion that reality as we know it is being threatened. Forget that silly coincidence and let the stupidity flow over you like a warm stream from a hot shower. The only way you will be changed by this is that you will have a slight smile on your face, and no memory of the world outside for 90 minutes. That is a reasonable respite for these times.

While Bill and Ted have aged physically in the story, their emotional growth is static. The two of them are joined at the hip, skimming through life, having missed the chance to turn their immense popularity at the end of the last film into something lasting. The problem may be expectations. Since they know that the future has been influenced by their work, they appear to have been chasing the dream of writing a song that will unify the world and bring balance. We all know how hard it is to fall asleep when we want to rather than when we need to. Nothing will keep you awake as much as thinking about how important it is for you to get to sleep. Well apply the same principle to just about anything else and it will be true there as well. In an effort to fulfill their potential, they have alienated their audience, isolated their life experience and generally grown less relevant. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I felt that the characters and script were suffering from the same problem. The movie wants to be fun, but it takes a long time to set up the story, and by exaggerating some of the character traits by genetically passing them on, the screenwriters seem to be suffering from the same hubris. 

Once the set up is out of the way, the movie feels a lot more easy/breezy and the dofuss fun begins. Creatively, there is not much here. As in the first film, historical figures are being collected, but this time for a band rather than a history project. Also, as in the second film, we return to Hell and have to figure out how to escape the afterlife. The return of William Sadler as Death is the most welcome call back to the previous films. The storyline of estranged bandmates coming back together is one of the few organic elements of the film that fits. Some other side plots such as the counseling session with their wives, the two princesses rescued from the first  and second movies, may amuse but don't connect well to the main story. If you thought Bill and Ted were deficient in IQ points back in 1989, it appears that there is no recessive gene, because the two daughters are even more vacuous. There were a few cute points about their similarities to the dads but combined with the story points, it does feel a bit like they are simply repeating themselves.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves don't seem to have changed all that much. They are in on the joke and play it straight for us. Other returning characters seem to be there simply to show that the world we are seeing is an outgrowth of the previous films. Ted's Dad, the boy's Step Mother Missy, and the Joanna and Elizabeth, the wives/princesses, don't do much for the story except provide continuity. I can't decide if Dennis Caleb McCoy, the robot sent to kill Bill and Ted is more amusing or irritating. I think I got just enough laughs out of him to tip the balance slightly in his favor. I can tell you however, that as a
long time SoCal resident, San Dimas never appears as itself in this movie. There was one static shot in the credits of the real San Dimas High School, but all other physical similarities are non-existent.

The other thing that is missing from the movie is a song track that would be worth playing back. I did not notice any killer songs being used as background music, and the stuff that was supposed to be original, entirely lacked a hook. So how is it that after these criticisms, I can still say the movie was fun, thats simple. It is stupid and relishes it's stupidity. I have no idea who Kid Cudi is, but I know that when he is given the exposition that is supposed to explain the physics of the plot line, it is supposed to be ironic. It was, because it is scientific mumbo jumbo spewed forth by a peripheral character, at an opportune moment, and we are just expected to let it go. I could do that, and did so with a number of other things in the film, because the two slackers and their cohort were making me smile and forget about the really dumb stuff happening in the world these days.    

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

JAWS 2020 Visit

 


Because of Covid, I did not get to do a trip to see Jaws on the big screen this last July 4th. That's right, we literally had "panic on the 4th of July." Thanks Mayor Vaughn for that prescient moment. I did watch the new 4K version at home on that holiday, but this site caters to theatrical presentations for the most part, so I did not feel there was anything worthy to say at that time. Since then, I have relocated to Texas, just outside of Austin, and I am trying to find my feet in this new cinema community. It looks as if there will be many chances to see older films in a theater at a local hot spot for those activities, the Paramount in downtown Austin.


They were closed over the summer but recently re-opened and there is a series of popular classics scheduled for the next month or so, including this greatest adventure film of all time. The theater is an old style movie palace that has a mezzanine section and a balcony above the main orchestra level of the theater. We chose seats up here so we could get a better look at the walls, ceiling and boxes of the theater.


There are some intricate moldings around the proscenium, and the elaborate decor on the opera style boxes is lovely. Although modern theaters are comfortable with stadium seating and wider aisles, the presence of old style showmanship in these classic buildings makes a visit to see a movie special 

As usual, the "Quint" essential film of the 1970s played like gangbusters. The audience was not huge, probably because capacity is limited under the current times and people are required to wear masks. I did hear the four ladies behind us a few rows, laughing after gasping, which many people do to alleviate their anxiety. So it was clear the movie has lost none of it's impact. The sudden arrival of Ben Gardner continues to cause people to jump, even when they know it is coming. 


That is Amanda in the background, taking in the theater and taking a picture of the ceiling. I would not be surprised to find some of those on social media if you go looking in the right places. Anyway, popcorn was had, sodas were consumed and Hooper and Brody [spoiler alert] manage to make it back to the shore at the end of the film. In all, it was a successful Sunday afternoon that I hope to repeat frequently in my new hometown.

That should not be hard considering what is coming up in another couple of weeks.  Somebody out there likes me. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tenet



This was probably the most anticipated film of the summer for a lot of people. Because of the Pandemic shutdowns, it got pushed back three times before finally making it to theaters this week. Bu all means, see this movie if you are interested, in a theater. The scope, photography and action sequences will be diminished if you choose to see this on a tablet, TV screen or heaven forbid, on a phone.

I want to start with a message that is also a warning. If, during the course of this Two and a half hour film, you need to visit the restroom or concession stand, and you are worried you will miss something that clarifies the story or advances the plot in the time you are gone, go ahead and go. Nothing explained in any five minute sequence during the film, will help you keep track of what the hell is going on in this movie. "Inception", "Memento" and "Interstellar" all play with time and parallel events. If you ever had trouble following those concepts, which are reasonably well explained although still confusing at times, get ready to feel completely lost. For the first hour, things made sense and you could follow the logic of the world Christopher Nolan has created here. The premise is interesting and it contains the usual conundrums that time travel stories face. The problem is that about a third of the way into the film, two or three additional plot elements are introduced, each one with different time influences , and they all start influencing each other. Sometimes those effects are so complicated that a map would not help you. Events start moving faster and trying to keep up will be a waste of time if you are also trying to enjoy the movie.

There is nothing inherently wrong  in having a complicated plot, if at some point you can make sense of how it all comes together, "Tenet" attempts that but largely fails to be coherent, even though several of the twists involve tricks you have seen a hundred times before in a time travel story. Ultimately, I think you can view this film as one loop in an event that has a limitless number of possible variations. Doing that will not make the story more satisfying however. I would have to see the movie several more times to pick out the inconsistencies and  conundrums that pop up, but to be honest, Nolan himself doesn't seem to care about them. He even has one of the characters say as much, fairly early in the film. Stop trying to make sense, let's just let this wash over us. I can live with that, but it will leave Tenet as an exercise in style and film making, rather than a piece of cinematic art.

With a pre-title sequence that feels a lot like a Bond film, Nolan sets this up as an espionage story, that potentially would be confusing the way some double and triple cross stories can be, but it would still be grounded. As the science fiction element takes center stage, the tradition spy tropes get doubled back on with a wink and a nod to time travel twists we have seen before. I won't spoil it for you, but during a heist scene, one character confronts another and we don't see the second characters face in that sequence. You know that will play out again, and there will be a reveal.,,guess what's coming.

John David Washington has just enough charisma to play the low key "Protagonist" of the story. The scene that shows off the potential of what might have been a solid spy film, involves his lunch with Michael Caine. It is not his fighting skill, or dramatic intensity that makes the scene work, rather, it is his bemused self confidence in the face of being judged by others. One place I don't think he was quite successful at was the near romantic element of his relationship with the character played by actress Elizabeth Debicki. I can buy that he feels a sense of responsibility for her in a paternalistic way, but the embers of romance that are supposed to be the base of this are not there.  He can sell that he cares, what is not clear is why he cares.

We get a pretty good preview of what the next Batman movie will be like because Robert Pattinson, plays a much more active Felix Leiter to Washington's 007. I suspect, that as in most of the good Batman films, the quirky Bruce Wayne will not take a back seat to the brooding "Dark Knight". Pattinson plays Neil, the mysterious counterpart to the Protagonist, and he has a light touch with the humor and enough presenter to sell the physicality.

You ready for a surprise? The actor who steals the movie is Kenneth Branagh. Taking the start he made on a similar character in the Jack Ryan film from a few years ago, Branagh manages to make a cartoon villain feel dangerously real. A kingpin of a Russian oligarch, it would be easy to just say the lines and have threats come off as empty bravado. Nolan gives Branagh actions to play that show us his ruthlessness, the actor adds a sense of menace to those lines, but never with the charm of a fictional character. Instead, the deadly earnestness of his performance is disturbingly real. The tiniest touch of humanity right at the end of the film paints just enough of a persona to make the character evn more real, and loathsome.

Filmed in some of the most beautiful locales in the world, it would be hard to fault the look of the picture. The movie is not overcut in the action scenes, but the parallel time tracks and reverse structure do require some frequent cuts in perspective that can get a bit confusing at times. The backward car chase sequence looks great, but when it is followed up on, instead of being clearer, it leads us to start questioning what we really saw before, but not in the good way that it is supposed to work.

At two and a half hours, despite a solid pace, the film feels long. Probably because of the plot conceit concerning inverted time elements. I loved "Memento" but it was less than two hours and the same kind of thing happens there. Adding another forty minutes to it would do to it what happens with "Tenet", it makes you look at your watch and wonder how much longer it is going to go on.  Maybe when it is serialized as a four hour mini-series, it will work better.

Christopher Nolan has one of the greatest imaginations in the film industry. There are terrific concepts in most of the movies he has made. There are simply too many times that we ravel on a tangent that takes up a chunk of time but might have been replaced with something simpler as just as easy to admire. The stacking Russian Doll story structure worked well in "Dunkirk", it was clever in "Inception", but it is simply overdoing it in this movie.

I probably sound like I am down on the film, I'm not really. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Pattinson and Washington invading a penthouse in India, or doing a heist at an airport freeport, were well staged action scenes. The inverted battle at the climax of the movie was spectacular to look at but mostly incomprehensible. The inverted stories are fine but when you start to retcon your own movie to change the outcomes, you create dilemmas that Solomon could not work out and algorithms that might give Einstein fits. See the movie, go with what is happening on the screen at any point and don't try to make it make sense. That extra brainwork will distract from the moment, and it is the moments that make this movie worth seeing, not the plot.  

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield



We have had plenty of Jane Austin inspired films in the last few years, including a charming version of "Emma" earlier this year. It's time for a change up, but not too big a change, so we will stick to 19th century English writes, but change genders, decades and primary locations. Who is in the mood for some Charles Dickens?

I'd not seen the trailer for this film before we went to the movies, in fact, I don't even think I'd heard of it, but it was the weekend, theaters are opening up, and this was not "The New Mutants" so it became the designated choice for Saturday afternoon. From the start, you can tell this will be an interesting approach to telling the well worn story of David Copperfield. The opening of the film is set up like it was a lecture hall, and the audience was certainly more diverse than you would have seen in 1840's London. That is one of the winning choices of the film makers. Casting was dictated not by historical accuracy or by Dickens's description per se, but by the ability of actors to be charming in the roles that they are cast in. Our hero is portrayed as an adult by Dev Patel, not a traditional Englishmen of the stage. He is delightful in the role, and I have been a fan since "Slumdog Millionaire".  He has an earnestness that matches well with the Dickensian moods of our hero. I assume that the young Ranveer Jaiswal  was chosen to play the young David Copperfield because he matched up with Patel in many ways, but the way that is most important is demeanor rather than appearance and that worked here.

Director/writer Armando Iannucci is familiar to me because of two films, "In the Loop" which was a MOTM on the LAMB three years ago, and "The Death of Stalin" which was widely hailed and recommended to me. Both films were solid comedies with a bent to them that is very distinctive, and that sensibility is also found in this movie, at least in a few spots. I had some reservations because the framing device and transition to the traditional narration felt a bit frantic and unclear at the beginning. It was as if the director was struggling to signal that this is a comedy, while still trying to retain the elements of Copperfield that are not really funny. The whole thing settles down after about ten minutes and the more straightforward narrative takes over. There are still plenty of the odd moments and stylings that Iannucci is well known for, but it fills the story rather than driving it as we go along.

I recognized Peter Capaldi, not from Dr. Who, which I don't watch, but from "In the Loop" and the "Paddington" films. I thought he was a perfect Mr. Micawber, and every time he showed up the movie was funny again. Hugh Laurie, who plays Mr. Dick, was also a comforting comical presence. Both of these actors are capable of playing off absurd circumstances yet still pulling some poignant moments amid the craziness. My guess is that most of the cast will be far more recognizable to Brits than we colonists, because they all seem very good, so they probably work in television programming or theater that is more U.K. centered. 

The casting of romantic counterparts in the film might be a little precocious since the point seemed to be to emphasize the lack of ethnocentricity,  The actors are so good however, that what might have been seen as an affectation, turns out to be barely noticeable. Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, a love interest for Patel, and the daughter of Benedict Wong's Mr. Wickfield, crossed two ethic boundaries at once and we don't care at all. This is the sort of casting I think would address the desire for diversity without drawing attention to the fact that you are trying to do that.

For a complicated story, the film is paced pretty well. I do think that the opening section with the awful Mr. Murdstone needed to fleshed out a bit more, but perhaps the youthful Copperfield isn't where the writer found the most joy in the story. If you are able to see the film, by all means do so. I think it would be easy to peg the costumes for awards consideration at the end of the year. The clothes help make the characters easy to understand and entertaining simultaneously. Copperfield has some tragic moments but this production does not dwell on them, it acknowledges those points but move quickly to it's objective, which is to amuse us. The return of the bookend devices toward the end of the film are much less jarring than at the start of the story and they finish things off nicely.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Unhinged



The drought was over last weekend, when I went to a theater to see a movie. after five long months of Covid-19 closures. That movie was " Jurassic Park" a film that I've written about many times already. So there was not really a need to have an in-depth look at that film. This week however, I am celebrating a new film, being released in theaters and it is fresh for comment, "Unhinged". This is a brutal piece of exploitation film making, featuring a major star in a basic plot, which gets a few nods to social relevance, but it is really designed to screw up the tension level and cause you periodic moments of revulsion. In other words, it was a great movie for me to get back to a theater and blogging.

Russel Crowe is the great white shark in this movie. I mean that figuratively for the most part, although his physical presence in film in the last decade have in fact suggested that Quint was right in assessing the weight of the opposition. Crowe plays a character listed in the credits as "The Man", an interesting coincidence sine the last film posted on this site "The Naked Prey" also features the same credit for the lead actor. Ay one point the character introduces himself as Tom Cooper, so I'm going to refer to him by that name for the rest of this entry. Cooper is a disturbed man, who we know immediately is going to be trouble. There is a pre-title sequence that establishes with violence from a distance, that Tom has lost all sense of proportion or reasonableness. This may work against the story a bit in the long run because we are never going to listen to the perspective he articulates and the background set up in the title sequences will become irrelevant. Tom is a bad man who can feign politeness for a few moments but ultimately will reveal himself as a lost monster.

Actress Caren Pistorius has to carry most of the film herself by reacting to phone calls and traffic encounters. There are a few moments of human interaction but they pass by pretty quickly. This movie is likely to do for road rage acts of expression, what "Fatal Attraction" did for extra-marital affairs, scare the potential bird flipper away from such emotional outbursts. Although there is a self righteous payoff line at the climax of the film, the real coda happens a few minutes later when Caren is reminded of how this whole day turned into a nightmare for her in the first place. I don't think we should all assume that the worst possible thing that could happen will be the most likely thing to happen, but a little perspective is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, because we know from the start how awful the antagonist is, that perspective will not get a hearing.

Trying to turn a road rage incident into a movie is possible. Spielberg did it fifty years ago with "Duel".  This script however goes in some very different directions based on the level of privacy we give up by using smart phones. I can't say what technological innovations will make those plot devices irrelevant in twenty years, but there will certainly be something. Like people today who laugh at classic films that use the absence of a phone in a remote location as a plot device, someday, the content of phones will seem like an antiquated tool for storytelling.  The movie suffers from a few of the traditional plot holes that these sorts of movies suffer from. The main protagonist makes some dumb choices, the villain has prescient sight, and abilities that are far deeper and quicker than the average person can manage. The cops, who in real life have helicopters chasing drivers who run after a bad traffic light call, can't seem to get it together enough to track, pursue and capture a man that has committed multiple atrocities and continues to do so. This is movie story telling, not the real world.

Let's put all that aside for a moment. Crowe plays the maniac with enough range to make the character somewhat compelling. The vehicle jump scares and action beats are always effective, and the resolution meets our need for retribution and recovery. It's not a great movie, but it came at a great time for me. I can't stay locked down forever, and escapist fare like this helps quite a bit. And as this poster tells you. I saw it in a theater.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Naked Prey (Movies I Want Everyone to See)

[This post Originally appeared on the site "Fogs Movie Reviews", which is now closed, in the Fall of 2013, It is being shared as part of my series of "Movies I Want Everyone to See".]


Since the invention of film there have been a number of stories that feature man against nature. Those stories have often cast a group of men against a an overwhelming natural force; Hurricanes, fires, floods, the cold of the poles, the heat of the desert and the savagery of animals trying to eat and live. My own experience with such films include "Jeremiah Johnson", "The White Dawn", and "Man in the Wilderness".  In the American film experience, a number of these stories featured explorers or pioneers in the West, seeking to survive a trip through Indian lands, to build a new life for themselves or to profit from the natural resources they find on their journey. As part of the narrative there is often contact with other cultures and that contact takes a violent turn. Regardless of whether you sympathize with native peoples whose way of life is threatened or the intruder who sometimes acts foolishly and at other time heroically, these stories can be compelling and exciting.  Westerns are littered with ill fated travelers being killed in brutal ways by Indian tribes they encounter (And of course the inverse is true as well, the intruders are not healthy for the native population either).

Title

"The Naked Prey" takes a North American historical incident of this type and transplants it to a similar environment in Africa.  An ivory hunting safari is waylaid as it engages in the slaughter of elephants. The hunters have managed to antagonize an indigenous  tribe by failing to provide a tribute asked of them. The wisdom of the hunt manager was ignored and the bull headed financier of the expedition dismisses the tribesmen as beggars and thieves. The Western legend has John Colter, once a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, captured by a Blackfoot tribe, being turned loose by his captors and hunted like an animal. He survived his nearly two week trek through the wilderness, naked and having had to kill several of his pursuers. The lead character in this film, billed as "Man" is the safari manager and has the Colter part.


Before the RaidThis film takes the story to a credible location and adds some fascinating dimensions to the original legend. Cornel Wilde, was an actor who had been nominated for an Academy Award playing Chopin in 1946. The following years are mostly filled with low level parts in bigger pictures or starring roles in second level swashbucklers. He created his own production company and created several films before this piece of rousing adventure entertainment. Here he is the star, producer and the director and he does most of this while nearly naked on the set for the whole shoot. He was fifty two at the time and looked in good shape despite reportedly being sick with some local bug at the time.

Captured


CookingCreating A CrockpotThe picture is pretty brutal for it's time. There is quite a bit of blood involved, and the animal population of Africa appears to be threatened with near extinction given the frequency with which animals die in the course of the story. The images are not politically correct because the deaths of the safari members at the hands of the native tribe are gruesome and would do little to endear the people of that tribe to the rest of the world. I first saw this movie in the early 1970s and had nightmares over the grim method of execution chosen for one of the hunters in the safari. He is basically trundled up and encased in clay for the purpose of roasting alive over a fire. The thought of the torture is disturbing enough but it was visualized in a very realistic way and that made it all the more troubling. Wilde's character is forced to watch the deaths of his compatriots and then is lead out to a spot where one of the tribesmen shoots an arrow down field and "Man" is given a head start to the spot where the arrow has landed. This is where the chase begins.

We know very little about the character. This was supposed to be his last expedition before he retires to his farm, he is apparently married as there is a moment when his wedding ring is eyed by the hunters as a potential prize, and his name may be Larry, since he was called that a couple of times by another member of the expedition. Most of what we learn about this character is shown through his wits and behaviors both before capture and as he is trying to escape. He has a keen ear and realizes something is wrong before their party is attacked. He was the one who rationally advised paying a small tribute to avoid insulting the natives. He also seems to despise the acts of his partners in killing elephants that are unadorned with ivory tusks. He could easily be one of those experienced trackers from a Western, who know some of the native lingo and cultures and often tries to guide self centered troops or pioneers through dangerous lands. Clearly an archetype, he makes it easy for us to sympathize with him in his run for survival.

The native hunters are certainly cruel by modern standards but they are also human. This is a pretty amazing film in that it manages to create character and story without being dependent on dialogue. After the first ten minutes, the only dialogue we get is spoken in a unique African dialect that is not sub-titled. We know what is going on by watching the faces and hearing the noises the characters make. The ten men that end up hunting "Man", have emotional reactions to the death of their friends, they share moments of laughter and satisfaction, and they turn on one another as the chase becomes more and more deadly. All of this is accomplished without the audience having words to hang onto. It's not the same as a silent film in which the actors might have to exaggerate to convey an emotion or idea, the story telling is more universal and that makes it easy for us to relate to, even when we can't say exactly what the characters are saying.

EscargoThe story becomes a version of "The Most Dangerous Game" and a nature film. Our hero manages to turn the tables on his pursuers so he ultimately does have some weapons and a loincloth. Still, he is alone in the wilderness and must manage to navigate treacherous terrain, dangerous wildlife and multiple human threats as well. Like most of these wilderness films, the character tries a variety of animals, insects and plants to survive on. He ends up having escargot made from giant crawling mollusks, and lizard and rat. The one antelope he manages to take down he loses to a predator higher on the food chain in this environment. There are a couple of humorous scenes that show him struggling to get some food so while the circumstances are dire, there is still a bit of humanity to entertain us.

The photography in this movie is sometimes spectacular. There are nicely composed shots of the chase through some interesting vistas and jungles. As night falls at one point there is a beautiful shot of the twilight sky, dark orange silhouetting the canopy of trees and hills in the foreground. There are also as many shots of animals as there are of anything else. A baboon turns the tables on a cheetah, just as our hero does the same on his pursuers. Birds are both beautiful and gruesome as they hover near the scenes ready to swoop in and feed on the entrails of other animals. There are several shots of snakes which might give you the creeps if snakes are your own fear. One noticeable mistake is giving a rattlesnake sound effect at one point to snakes that would not have that characteristic in Africa. If we were not immersed in the suspense of the story, it would be a pleasure to take in all of the sights as the film rolls through some great looking locations.

In the last quarter of the film, a long sequence involves "Man" showing that he really is someone to root for. He encounters another tribe that suddenly comes under attack from slavers. The harrowing episodes illustrate that the slave trade was one of the cruelest behaviors that human beings ever imposed on one another. Our hero helps a small girl escape from the scene by creating a dangerous diversion. Later she gets a chance to repay him and we have a brief respite from the grueling adventure and an opportunity to see humanity in a place where we might have despaired of it in the last hour. Finding a FriendThroughout the film the hunters and the prey spar over space and distance. This is one of those films where the hunter wisely chooses when to run and when to fight. The fight scenes that do happen are usually believable in the context of the chase. "Man" gets the drop on his pursuers several times and makes the most of those opportunities. A dramatic use of fire allows him to put some space between himself and the chasers but also gives him a chance to taunt them the way that they have taunted him from the beginning. The struggles of the men chasing him set them back as much as his efforts do. The men are skillful trackers but they are not always as clever as the hero needs to be. A dramatic rift appears and it is clear that the hierarchy of the tribe is created by power and violence. Despite the murderous actions of the prey and the hunters, both sides develop a respect for their opposite. That respect may have existed to begin with since "Man" was given a chance in his torturous form of execution, but it is multiplied by the tenacity of his fight and the body count he builds in trying to return to a safe place.


JungleI suspect that every viewer would imagine themselves in these circumstances and wonder if they themselves are up to the challenge. As a kid, loving adventure and the romance of an exotic place, we might hope to think we would be equal to the trek. An adult might wince with pain at the brambles and thorns that "Man" sometimes has to dodge and almost assuredly we would be grateful for the civilization that we enjoy rather than the brutality of the past we have managed to overcome. There are still places in the world where human beings treat one another in the most unimaginably brutal ways. A story like this gives us hope that we can overcome those hardships and strive to avoid ever being in such a situation ourselves. This is a tour de force performance from Cornel Wilde. He manages, without words for most of the film, to evoke strength and determination and ultimately humanity into a hellish world. As it was clearly his passion project he should get the lion's share of the credit. It is interesting to me that the film received an Academy Award nomination for the script, which was certainly deserving, but that Wilde was ignored both as director and actor. This is the movie that I suspect he will best be remembered for. With a nod to the earlier African adventure "Zulu", let me end this post with a salute to a valiant warrior, the late Cornel Wilde.
Farewell

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.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

10 Summer Suggestions 2020


Two years ago, I had the thought of looking at my collection of films and picking out some movies that would be perfect for a Summer evenings entertainment. With the current pandemic, most people have been streaming until their eyes are red, trying to fill the time that would normally be taken up by baseball games, family picnics, and a trip to the local movie house. People I have spoken too are binge watching gruesome murder mysteries, depressing true life documentaries and new films made for the streaming services (oh yeah, and Hamilton).  Hey, I stream with the best of them, but I also still rely on my physical media to get inspired. So with an aim to keep the mood light, the family engaged and to dig a little into the past, here is an updated list for your Covid Summer Family viewing pleasure.

Tim Allen Comedies

Once the king of 1990s family comedies, Allen has reverted back to television for the most part, with occasional returns as Bud Lightyear in the Toy Story Films. After the turn of the century, Allen's star dimmed a bit with some films that did not perform at the box office, and which may have been missed by you the first time around.

Joe Somebody



Allen plays a mid-level managerial type, who is not really appreciated at his job. He crosses paths with another employee, known to be a bully, who is physically bigger and more assertive than the mild mannered character Allen plays. What ensues is the equivalent to a schoolyard challenge to fight in the parking lot of their mutual employer on a given date. There is of course a moral to the story, but there are also some pretty good laughs along the way.

Big Trouble


You don't have to add the words "...in Little China", this is a completely different film. It's release date was pushed back several months in 2001 due to the terror attacks on 9/11. The plot of the film features bumbling criminals obtaining a nuclear device, while crossing paths with an ineffectual single Dad and a mob hit. The cast is phenomenal, with pros like Rene Russo, Dennis Farina and Stanley Tucci backing up Allen. It's a Barry Sonnenfeld directed film, and I quote it regularly almost 20 years later.














Animated Fun


Who Framed Roger Rabbit



It is certainly not a forgotten film, but it may have been a while since you checked it out. It is a technical marvel and the lead performance by Bob Hoskins should have been an awards contender. The not so secret weapon here is the supporting cast, all the toon from the old days. This mixture of live action/animation and film noir is also very funny and perfect family entertainment for a July or August night with the kids.




Bolt


A Disney film in the Pixar Style with a sly satire of Hollywood entertainment built in. Beloved TV Star Bolt, is under the impression that he really is a superdog with powers that he uses to protect his beloved little girl. There are supporting animals and a spy theme. 



So if you are a regular reader on this site, Dogs+Spy Stories+Hollywood Satire= Recommendation.



Gender Bender Comedies

Hairspray


Because the John Waters feature that the musical was based on featured the Cross Dressing Divine playing the Mother of our ingenue, the trick is repeated for the film version of the musical play, with John Travolta wearing the dress and the fat suit (before he no longer needed it). This 2007 musical has a nice open minded theme to promote, but even better, it has great dancing and fun songs. 



Happy Texas

An oddly matched pair of prison escapees pass themselves off as a gay couple who prep girls for children's beauty pageants. This late 90s comedy is stolen by Steve Zahn, but William H. Macy gives him a good run for the money in character charm. There is some violence and language issues but tweens and teens can watch with the family without too many worries. A detailed review for this is available in my collection of Movies I Want Everyone to See, it was originally published in 2013 but it is reprinted on this site as the post immediately prior to this. 


Old School Wedding Crashers

The Internship

One of the first indicators that straight comedies were dying, The Internship has a solid premise, two reliable comedy stars and an incredible product placement campaign that is not subtle at all. It still did no business and mid level comedies started drying up right after this. Don't worry, it was a function of audience trends, the movie is plenty entertaining with a PG-13 attitude.








70s Fun

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother















Gene Wilder wrote and directed this slapstick take off on the great detective. This movie is clearly influenced by the movies Wilder made with Mel Brooks and it features many players you would know from films made by Brooks. It is a period piece with swordfights and carriage chases and an opera scene that is quite amusing. Not as widely known as many of it's contemporaries, it is worth a dive to find it on Amazon. 


The Hot Rock


You've heard of serial criminals, the is a movie about a serial crime. This is a heist film with several different heists built in. A cast of 1970s stars including Robert Redford and George Segal, have the unfortunate luck to be stealing a cursed jewel for an African Government. The best laid plans go astray, over and over again. Maybe a little slow for modern audiences, but a breezy sense of humor passes the events very effectively.






The Big Stretch

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)



This movie does not have a good reputation, but that is unfortunate. Although it is a little clunky at times, it is a solid introduction for younger viewers to Westerns in general, and the character of the Lone Ranger in particular. Star Klinton Spillsbury, made only one feature, and it is easy to tell why. Everyone else is fine however, including Christopher Lloyd in one of his many 1980s villain incarnations and Jason Robards as an appropriately gruff Ulysses S. Grant.   



Happy Texas [Movies I Want Everyone to See]


Happy Texas Review by Richard Kirkham


The world is full of little movies that have charm, whimsy and a great story to tell. Once in awhile, a movie like that catches fire and becomes a critics and audiences darling. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a good example of that. It went on to garner Awards and sell tickets and DVDs for years. Unfortunately, that was not the fate of my first entry for FMR. “Happy, Texas” did enjoy some solid reviews and everyone I know who saw it has told me they enjoyed it immensely. That would be three people. This movie was made on a small budget of 1.7 million dollars, and it brought back 1.9 million in U.S. box office, without any International release that I found. That means that it lost money, because budget does not cover prints and advertising. Putting the movie in theaters cost someone some cash.

Now the film has been available since 1999, so some may have seen it on home video in some format or other. I hope you are one of those lucky people, but even more than that, I hope you are one of those people who has yet to see it and you have this joyful experience to look forward to. While I do think it has a high level of repeatability, it is a great discovery that will bring huge rewards to first time viewers. There is a funny premise, a heart warming story, and some of the best character actors around filling up the screen. This movie is flat out funny with quotable lines and awkward situations, as well as a simple plot device that drives much of the fun.

Harry Sawyer and Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr are two convicts who get caught up in a prison break by a violent offender named Bob Maslow. They are not particularly dangerous but even more telling, they are not particularly smart. This film is not a slapstick based on their stupidity, it is a character story that follows the misadventures they get into, every time they make a decision. The biggest choice they make is to take on the personae of the two men from whom they steal an RV, in an attempt to hide in plain sight and gain access to some cash. This requires them to pass themselves off as pageant consultants for little girls in the small town of Happy, Texas. What follows should not be revealed too much, except to say they both succeed and fail in their disguise.


The two leads are played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam. Northam was in the middle of the high point of his career. He had been the lead or co-star in several well reviewed “tea on the lawn” English style films such as “Emma”, “An Ideal Husband” and “Gosford Park”. He is one of those talented British actors who manages a very effective American accent in this movie. Zahn is a comic genius, who takes goofy oddball characters and manages to make them endearing without becoming too cloying. Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr., bounces between being a borderline nut job and a warm hearted good ole boy. Whereas Northam has two love stories to tell, Zahn has a half dozen, including a romance with local pageant director Illeana Douglas. It is his commitment to the role that he has taken on that makes the film so funny. Harry just wants to get the money and get out but he is tripped up completely confounding romantic entanglements. Wayne gets sucked in by the little girls he is trying to make pageant worthy.

There are several wonderful performances by talented old hands. M.C. Gainey, has made a career out of playing menacing criminal types on TV and in movies. He is the heavy in this piece but has a few well placed lines and looks that add to the comedy as well as building up some tension. Ally Walker is smoking hot as the banker that Harry is trying to get close to in order to score the money he and Wayne need to make good their escape. The prize performance though belongs to William H. Macy, as Sheriff Chappy Dent. He is a small town sheriff with a heart too big, even for Texas. When I first saw this movie I was sure he would be up in the same category for the Oscars as he was just a few years earlier in “Fargo”. It is a part that could be lampooned and made fun of but he turns it into a solid role that makes you care for the character. He is a figure to empathize with and to respect. I think it is the lack of exposure that denied him in this go round. Never the less it is a great part and you will love the way he is described by a fellow lawman in the action sequence near the end of the picture. It is a classic line that bears repeating whenever the opportunity presents itself. 


The other kudos go to the set of little girls that play the hopefuls in the pageant. They give back what is put before them in terms of performance. When we finally get to see the whole routine they have prepared for the competition, it is as funny and charming as the talent dance in “Little Miss Sunshine”. All the effort that went into making the story work pays off with a display that is believable and charming on it’s own. The plot issues may seem a little pat, but they are secondary to the characters and the performances. This is a movie that sets out to create a specific tone and you know it is deliberately trying to move you in a sentimental way. What is so delightful is that it succeeds regardless of your defenses.



If you want to be entertained by a movie that creates great characters, features wonderful performances and provides a satisfying resolution, than “Happy, Texas” is for you. If that’s not what you are looking for in a movie, then this column may not be for you. For my part I love it when a movie hits me in the heart and knocks me over the head at the same time. This is the kind of movie that makes me Happy.

Representative Quote
Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr.: Okay, God, just... want you to look down on these girls here. They're like little flowers, and the rain you send 'em gutta be gentle and sweet. We come to you today, and we ask you to just... help 'em - help us grab this pageant by the balls and rip 'em off! I mean, if those judges don't like us, then screw 'em. These girls here - they're talented, they're pretty, and if those judges say anything different, then I hope that on Judgement Day you put their asses through a meat grinder!... Amen.


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