Saturday, September 26, 2020
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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.
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
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
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
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
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).
"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.
This 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.
The 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.
The 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. Throughout 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.
I 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.
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
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
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Gender Bender Comedies
Old School Wedding Crashers
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother
The Hot Rock
The Big Stretch
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
Happy Texas Review by Richard Kirkham
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.