Thursday, June 30, 2011

Robert Shaw Festival Part 4"From Russia With Love"

I'm quite excited to write about this film for many reasons. First of all, I am a Bond fan, dyed in the wool, 100%, even enjoying Moonraker. I saw my first 007 film in 1967 or 68. It was a double feature with Thunderball, and my memory tells me I saw it second. I started reading the books then as well. I know we had them in a cupboard in the house we lived in in East L.A., and we moved out of that house in 1969, so I was reading them by age ten or eleven. For most of my life, From Russia with Love has been my favorite Bond film and book. While it is still my favorite of the original Fleming novels, as the years have passed, I grew to appreciate the audacity of the film making in Goldfinger, so From Russia with Love slid down to number 2. Of course that is number two out of twenty-three so still pretty good.

One of the major things that this film has going for it is the character of Donald "Red" Grant, played by our featured star this week, Robert Shaw. Shaw was in his mid thirties when he played this role, at the peak of his physical condition, and he had a face of granite, that mirrored the character perfectly. Casting can make a movie work so well sometimes, that it is a wonder to me that it is not Awarded at the Oscars on a regular basis. Whoever made this decision made the movie work twice as well as it would have otherwise. The character dominates the movie from the opening pre-title set up, to the last moment he is on screen. In fact his character dispatches Bond in the first minute and fifty-three seconds of the film. Those of you who know the film know what I am talking about.

What is especially impressive of Shaw's performance, is that he has no lines for the first hour and a half of the movie. In fact, there are really only three scenes that he speaks in. All of which have been set up well by the script and the director, but the anticipation of the confrontation owes a substantial amount to the actor. He refers to himself at one point as Bond's guardian angel. His character has hovered in the background for most of the film, a grim Spectre , looking over 007's shoulder and waiting for his chance to strike while denying anyone else the same opportunity. The lack of a smile, the silent stalking and the tough exterior leave us waiting for the confrontation that we know must ultimately come.

Shaw plays it cool from the beginning of the film, even though his character is supposed to be a homicidal maniac. He is kept on a tight leash but all the time we can see that he is itching to take Bond down. His eyes narrow to a squint when he first spots Bond at the airport and joins in the spy v. spy game they play in Istanbul. When he breaks the rules of the game by killing a Russian surveillance man,there is only a slight hint of satisfaction on his face as he knows that Bond and his ally Kerim Bey will be blamed. One of the most tense scenes right before he and Bond meet occurs as Grant haunts Bond on the Orient Express. When James gets off the train in Belgrade to contact his local support, Grant is right over his shoulder, still on the train, often seen only as a reflection in the glass, like a true ghost waiting to wreak havoc. He keeps his cool as we see him displace the real agent Nash, the only indicator of the violence is the way he slips on his gloves as he leads the unwitting Nash to the water-closet.

Once he makes contact with Bond, Shaw uses his voice and plays the proper Englishman for as long as necessary. The despairingly used phrase "Old Man", is the one way he can needle Bond before he can give up his cover. Shaw makes it sound condescending but not so deliberately that it would tip Bond off. When confronted red handed for drugging Tania, Grant /Shaw uses the right tone to convey that it is all part of the plan and that Bond can relax. That soothing tone works just long enough for James to drop his guard and then Grant attacks. Once he is in control of the situation, you can begin to see the monster that was there all the time. The cold blooded look returns and it is accompanied by a hostile twinkle in the eye that should be bone chilling. Still Bond toughs it out, all he needs is a chance to even the odds and he will be OK.

Once the fight starts, you know that it is seriously going to do some damage to your psyche. These are not cowboy punches thrown at arms length. There is wrestling, and karate, and blows to the solar plexus, that we know Grant can take from earlier. Bond needs to kick and grab and throw his opponent to have any kind of a chance. Ultimately we see that Shaw's character has his favorite weapon at hand, a garote that emerges from his watch and he nearly gets Bond around the neck. It is a single hand caught between the garote and his neck that gives James a chance to access his own back up, a throwing knife secreted in the briefcase provided by Q Branch. Bond gets a chance to reverse the noose and suddenly Grant is caught in his own device, learning first hand the destiny he has brought to so many others.

So, simply put, Shaw's performance enhances this film and makes the final confrontation the true climax of the picture. There is a helicopter chase, a boat chase, explosions and poisoned tipped shoes that all come after this, but none of them seem like a real threat because Bond has already taken out the toughest opponent imaginable. I think Tania Romanov was the second most beautiful Bond girl after Solitaire, and I think the briefcase is the second greatest gadget Bond ever got from Q, after the Aston-Martin with ejector seat. So my second favorite Bond has my second favorite gadget and second favorite Bond girl, but it also has the greatest of opponents in Bond's 22 movies so far. That is why this film deserves to be in the Robert Shaw Film festival.

Both Sean Connery and Robert Shaw will Return in,

Robin and Marion

Robert Shaw Festival Part Three Swashbuckler

Kirkham A Movie A Day: Swashbuckler 1976 A Movie A Day Day 60

The above link will give you a connection to my comments from last Summer's blog entry on Swashbuckler. I felt awful last night and did not make the movie but you can get some insight from Amanda here:

I have my comments on "From Russia With Love Coming Soon.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Extended Edition

Before you read a bit of this post, I would request, no I Demand, that you watch the above clip.

OK, Now you are properly prepared for a discussion of this the final chapter in one of the great movie series ever. The Lord of the Rings has been viewed as one of the great pieces of literature created in the last one hundred years. It took decades to figure out how to make a movie out of it and it took courage to commit the financial resources necessary to make it. The decision to go for broke and make them three movies, serves the film series very well and does carry on the structure of the books in large part. There are a few thing shifted from one book to another movie but by and large it all worked out. The inspiring speech you saw above could have been the words of encouragement that Peter Jackson used to the studio, or the producers used to their director, actors and technicians. This movie was a massive undertaking and I can easily imagine people losing heart at any given moment and needing to be inspired. Also, this speech could be a inspiration for a number of political movements and you can tailor it to your own leanings and get pumped up.

I was pumped to be seeing this on the big screen again. Two weeks ago we started on a Tuesday with Fellowship, last Tuesday it was Two Towers and then last night it was Return of the King. All those people standing in line to see Transformers don't realize what they were missing on the other side of the door. I am a little miffed because I had stepped out , half an hour before the movie was scheduled to begin, and they played the Peter Jackson Introduction. It was a pleasure to hear him both of the other times and we got some good stories. I missed it and was steaming for the first thirty seconds of the movie because they did not fix this by replaying it at the start. Anyone who was not there a half hour early missed one of the special treats of these Fathom Events. However, by the time Deagol comes up with the ring from the bottom of the river, I forgot all of that and was transported into Middle Earth for all the dramatic climax of the series.

There are so many incredibly emotional scenes in the movie, it is hard to list them. Pippin's melancholic song for Denthonr, Theoden's decision to come to Gondor's aid, Sam's determined defiance of Shelob as she hovers over Frodo, are all emotional button points. I choke up as the signal fires reach from mountain peak to mountain peak, and Gondor's plea to her traditional ally is sent. Gandalf's reassuring description of death as the next path, makes Pippen say, "That doesn't sound so bad", and indeed it doesn't; I hope whoever puts my funeral together can dig up this segment of dialogue to reassure my loved ones when I am gone. The most resonant line for me is Eowyn's declaration to the Witch King that she is no man, as she dispatches him to the oblivion we want all of the Nazgul to go to. The extended edition adds a character that really was needed to the story, The Mouth of Sauron. The visualization of this character was creepy to a fault, and the sly lies and emotional manipulation make Aragorn's speech even more relevant. The swish of Aragorn's sword is one of the cheers that filled the auditorium frequently over the course of the four hour plus version of the movie.

I know the film has been criticized and parodied because of the multiple endings over the last half hour but I know all of us want it to go on. We care about the characters and we shared their travails for 12 hours of movie. It is hard to say good-bye. Fortunately, we have "The Hobbit" to look forward to in a couple of years. I don't know who they have cast as the voice of Smaug, but whoever takes on the role will have a hard act to follow with Richard Boone's voice work in the animated version from the seventies. This was a pretty satisfying opportunity to look back on films that made a impression on me ten years ago and did the same on the big screen again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

JAWS: Memories From Martha's Vineyard

Happy Birthday to our youngest daughter Amanda. This is on it's way to you, if it is not here by Thursday, consider this a gift card. Love Mom and Dad

Robert Shaw Film Festival Day Two The Deep 1977

I did a posting on The Deep a year ago. You can find that commentary here:

Kirkham A Movie A Day: The Deep (1977) - A Movie A Day Day 59

We watched it tonight as part two of our Robert Shaw Festival. This is his reprise of the Quint character from Jaws, but as I watched it I realized that is a gross mis-characterization. There are several parallels but the truth is, this character is distinct and has greater diversity of emotions than I had originally thought. Shaw uses more of his original accent and that deadly calm demeanor is combined with a more natural personality than quint had. Romer Treece is a figure of respect for his accomplishments, but it is also clear he is a serious man with some romantic tendencies, he is actually pretty sentimental over the young couple he is working with.

I liked the relationship he developed with his hulking friend Kevin, and the paternalistic tone he took with the character played by Eli Wallach. I'm glad Wallach got a special Oscar last year, he deserved it, but it is funny to think he outlived Shaw by so long. If you look at the two in this film, Shaw is fairly young and vigorous. He has a dashing older man's charm and a physique that suggests he can handle himself. Wallach looked old an enfeebled in 1977, yet he is still working today in his nineties. This is again a reminder of what we lost when Shaw died at age 51. He only made two more films after this.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Robert Shaw Film Fesitval Day One

Last night we happened upon a great urban thriller from 1974, The Taking of Pelham 123. Amanda had just blogged about her love of Robert Shaw in "Jaws", and I had suggested we do a film festival. She had already planned out some films to lead us up to the traditional July 4th screening of the greatest adventure movie ever made, so when she saw "The Taking of Pelham 123" was starting in ten minutes, she said, "Let's Do It."

I guess it was not a summer release and that's why it wasn't in the blog last summer. I know I saw this film at the old Alhambra Twin, in the big theater. It is a very solid, gritty, New York film of it's time. The premise is basic; tough, ruthless men take over a subway car and hold it for ransom. They have a very strict time schedule and they plan on killing a hostage a minute if their demands are not met. as usual, I don't want anyone to get any spoilers from me, so I will say little more in the way of plot. The remake with Denzel Washington and John Travolta a couple of years ago was acceptable, but it does not hold a candle to the orginal in the tension that builds up.

In the original there are some political elements about New York City, but the are not essential to the plot. The remake focuses more on the politics of the transit system and the New York Mayor. This is the movie that seems to have inspired Quentin Taratino when naming his characters in "Reservoir Dogs", each of the four gunmen having a specific color for a code name; Mr. Blue, Mr. Green etc. They also come equipped with the automatic weapon of choice for early seventies fare, what is revered to in the slang as a "grease gun".

You really get a feel for the city in this movie, it is crowded, and uncomfortable, but it is also familiar and a lot more community oriented than you might be lead to believe by the stereotypes of New Yorkers. At least when it comes to the passengers that was true. The transit authorities have two or three characters that fit the stereotype precisely. Take this line for instance, Correll: "Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents - to live forever?" This is where you get some clever tough dialog and gallows humor. Walter Matthau is first billed and does his usual terrific job.

Robert Shaw is covered in a heavy coat, hat and fake mustache, for 95% of the film. He exudes steely eyed menace. Travolta used playful smart guy remarks and bluster to make the character contemorarey and tattoos to create a sinister persona. Shaw does it with an even handed demeanor, he never really raises his voice but the timing and tone tell you he is not someone to be trifled with. His Mr. Blue is in control of the passengers, the hostage takers and the negotiator. In other films he can have a twinkle in his eye or a smile on his face to make a point. His narrowed eyes and soft voice are scary as hell after a mid story shootout. Listen to him talk to the conductor and your blood will run cold.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2

Pixar has been the most consistently good film studio for the past 16 years. They invented the computer animated movie, but they did so with so much care in story and character, that although they make movies for kids, the movies never felt like they catered down to kids. Adults have recognized the maturity of stories found in the three Toy Story films, Up, Wall-e and a half dozen others. "Cars" was the 2006 installment in the summer movie field that Pixar has always dominated, artistically if not always financially. It is Amanda's favorite Pixar film (mine being "The Incredible s"). As a salute to nostalgia and the original Route 66, "Cars" was a warm piece of comfort food easily digested and easily repeatable. I have read many on-line comments that suggest that it was the weakest of the Pixar films. To me, that is like saying it was a home run that simply cleared the fence, rather than one which ended up in the upper decks or out of the park. I never had reason to complain. No one however, can be perfect for all of their career, if they are planning on staying in the game for an extended period of time. "Cars 2" brings to a close that long home run streak started back in 1995.

This movie is disappointing to us because of our love of the original movie. The vistas of Arizona and New Mexico are replaced with gorgeous versions of Tokyo and The Italian Riviera. The artistry of the animators and the talent of the cinematographer is not any less than the original. There are some fabulously designed graphics in the movie. The race sequences are edited together very effectively and create short bursts of energy in the movie. Unfortunately, the failings of "Cars 2" come in the one area that has always been a strength for Pixar, storytelling.

The first misstep was in conception, "Cars 2" is a conventional Spy Action movie. It's premise sounds like a Jackie Chan film, but not one of the great Hong Kong Jackie Chan films, rather more like one of the flaccid Hollywood films that try to use Chan's talent in a cookie cutter mainstream film (think "The Tuxedo" or "The Spy Next Door"). Lightning McQueen and Toe Mater, get caught up in international intrigue and Mater is mistaken for a top American secret agent. Mater's native mannerisms and frequent mistakes are viewed as brilliant cover by a pair of British agents trying to crack a conspiracy to torpedo a new energy source. Larry the Cable guy can be entertaining in some limited doses, but he is actually the star of the movie, not Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen. Larry as Mater is no Cary Grant. His dumb act is so real that anyone thinking he was merely acting would have to say he is the greatest actor in the world.

The opening section sets up the spy stuff pretty well with a nifty take on James Bond being done by Michael Caine as Finn McMissile. The problem is that almost nothing that follows really requires the car races that the movie is set up around. The races are peripheral to the spy plot, and most of that action takes place away from the track. There are some funny pieces in the sequence where Mater crosses paths with the real American agent in a Japanese bathroom. And at the spy headquarters, there are some clever visual jokes with the disguises that Mater will have to use to get to the hidden power behind the plot. Nothing in the plot makes any sense however. I won't provide a spoiler, but the whole reason for the deception by the real villain, and the plot to discredit a new energy source is simply counter-intuitive. I could follow any Bond film, all the Mission Impossible movies and The Usual Suspects, and still make some sense out of what was going on. In this movie, I could not do that. The motive is confusing and the execution of the conspiracy defeats it's own purpose.

Also, this is an entertainment, that is really directed at kids, and the political message in it seems heavy handed and hypocritical coming from all those gearheads at Pixar who created these characters in the first place. The original "Cars" lost the Academy Award to the movie "Happy Feet" back in 2007. That movie turned from being a charming children's story about dancing penguins into a loathsome screed about global warming. Maybe John Lassiter felt the sting of that loss too greatly and decided to insert his own sucker punch into the same series. I don't mind a movie having important themes, but they ought to fit in with the tone and characters that the movie is about in the first place.

Returning to my baseball analogy earlier, this film is not a strikeout. It basically is a ground rule double that wastes the talents of some pretty good voice actors. Caine should have more to do with the story after the set up of the plot. Eddie Izzard is cast in a manner that immediately gives away a key plot point. Finally, the greatest of injustices, Bruce Campbell, is given only two brief scenes in which to strut his iridescent comic persona. If you had left Lightning off at the race course and let Mater go with the American agent played by Campbell, you would have a comic team that might be worth following. The music was solid but not peppy and infectious like the first movie. The loss of George Carlin and Paul Newman since the first movie, also means that some real high wattage voice talent is missing from this edition. "Cars 2" was fine for an afternoon if you have little kids, but it plays like a weak Disney sequel rather than an new essential entry into the Pixar Cannon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Lord Of The Rings The Two Towers Extended Edition.

The extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films continued this week with the second in the series, "The Two Towers". For many fans, this is the pinnacle of the series, because it features the true introduction of Gollum, the tragic mirror of what both Bilbo and Frodo may have become. Gollum is a technically created creature that still had the acting skills of a very talented Andy Serkis to bring him to life. The character is divided between the shadow of Smeagal, one of the river folk distantly related to hobbits and Gollum, the surviving flesh and tortured soul of evil that has already been consumed by the ring. One of the best known scenes in the film involves the character basically arguing with himself. Sometimes in single shots and sometimes facing a second version of himself. It was a very effective piece of acting and a well planned piece of film making. In the brief introduction to the film, Peter Jackson tells us that he was not even there to film the scene since he was scheduled with the actors for another shot. The scene was done with stand ins substituting for the sleeping hobbits, and the motion capture directed by someone other than Jackson (He mentioned Fran Walsh but I don't remember if she wrote the scene, or if she wrote it and directed it as well.)

There are many things to love about The Two Towers; the chase of the Uri-kai across Rohan, the restoration of Theoden and the casting out of Sauraman, the appearance of the Ents and their fateful decision to cast their lot with the men of the west. Whereas in the first film, we followed one group of adventurers on their quest, in the center part of the story, the group has been divided into three distinct units with their own narratives. The film cuts back and forth very effectively between the three stories, and builds tension in each section that leads to a reasonable climax for the film. One plot development was postponed until the last film, but I think that makes the final film more effective and it lets this story stand a bit more independently as a result. There are great bits of humor used to keep things flowing as well. I think that the middle passage of this massive story could have languished if great care had not been taken with the screen play. The character of Gollum/Smeagal gives the movie a narrative drive that is far stronger than if had simply been focused on the journey and quest. Theoden, King is one of my personal favorite characters. He resists the obvious, chooses the dangerous and rises to the occasion sufficiently to make the resolution of his story and those of the riders of Rohan much more meaningful. Next week I suppose I will weep again at the defiant words of Eowyn as she confronts the witch king and defends her Uncle, but without the setups provided here it would simply be a plot point.

The extended edition also give a character that has already been killed off, a chance to deepen and create greater empathy for. Boromir is so much more clearly valiant as a result of his scenes in Gondor with his brother and father. The weariness with which he sets off to meet his fate is matched by his determination to save his land. The roll out of Farimirs character is more complete and again, the intertwining tragedies that all of these people must face in the course of the great conflict reflect the real nature of war and politics. There is so much going on in these worlds and not all of it is about the main quest. In the original theatrical releases of the movies, the story telling is tighter but not always complete. These extended editions do justice to the complexity of the world that Tolkien created.

The Battle at Helm' Deep is the climax of the film. It is loaded with dramatic action, humor and sacrifice. The desperate sense of doom that nearly overwhelms the forces aligned against Mordor does tend to hang over the film and make it the hardest of the stories to get through. Just as we reach the end of our strength, a character makes a breakthrough, or a tipping point comes down on the right side. Merry figures out a way to motivate the Ents, Aragorn restores King Theoden's faith in his family history, Farimir chooses a path that his brother could not. We get to see these things happen when we did not before. Sam grows and shows us more signs that he can be the hero, not just the side kick, that he will need to be in the final chapter. Frodo's fragile balance between savior and fallen is demonstrated by his charity towards Gollum and his impatience with Sam. Again there are dozens of seeds planted that will germinate and come to fruition in the last film. Those seed do have to be planted though and the film makers made that process a lot more interesting with the choices they made of what to add to the movie for the special edition.

I will need to go out and get the soundtrack for the movie, because in addition to the fanfare theme set up in "Fellowship", the sad violin based theme for the scenes in Rohan are featured. There are stirring action themes and character motifs in the rest of the movie as well, but the repetitive lament of a simple people, nearly wiped out and still holding onto their dignity, is one of the strong points of the film. My knowledge of music is scant, but my appreciation of it is immense, and this music made a real emotional difference in the film. As I said last week, this is one long commercial for the Blu Ray set that is coming, and the anticipation is heightened a couple of additional ways. There is a long promo for "", the fan driven site that will remind people of the coming version of "The Hobbit", there is the aforementioned introduction by Peter Jackson, and there are pre-film screen cards with trivia from the films. I have included some phone snapshots of these to add to your experience here. I promise, if there is a teaser for the Hobbit next week, the internet will meltdown with commentary and I will be part of the flood. I don't expect it, but all of the Lord of the Rings film experience have exceeded my expectation before, so we can hope.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

So last night we went to a three and a half hour commercial and paid $12.50 for the privilege. Next week we are doing the same, and then a week after that we do it again. Why, you might ask. It could have something to do with being big geeks, but the real reason is that movies are made to be seen in a movie theater. I love that I can own a movie and watch it anytime I like. I have a thousand or so movies in my collection, but I cannot enjoy them in a theatrical experience, no matter how big the TV is. I am not going to get 300 people, who all want to see the same film, to crowd around my family room TV. I can make popcorn, but it will not taste the same. Seeing a movie in a theater is a tradition that I treasure and seeing a movie I love in a theater is a memory that embraces all of my senses.

"The Fellowship of the Ring" is the the opening chapter in the "Lord of the Rings Trilogy". This movie series has been awarded, analyzed, worshiped and loved for almost ten years now. The DVD's of the films have been available for almost as long, and the extended versions of the movies for just a little bit less than that. So why do we need it on the big screen? We need it there so that we can marvel at the full specter of Gandalf's fireworks, so we can know how truly terrifying the Nazgul are when they attack. We need to jump at Bilbo's two second possession. A Balrog can only be fully respected when it is forty feet high and everyone in the theater is in awe. I grew up in the seventies, before home video was available. We waited for movies to play on television, and you had to schedule your time to see them. You could not shift times, skip commercials, step out of the room or rewind. If you were lucky, a favorite film would play at the college or at a revival house, and you could see it again on the big screen. Some films were periodically re-released and you could catch up with a Disney movie or a James Bond triple feature. Today we are spoiled by the wonders of technology that allow us to carry a movie like "Avatar" around in our pockets and watch it on a three or four inch screen anywhere. Last night was an embrace and a rejection of that technology all at once.

Digital magic created the world we were watching, and the Blu-ray experience will preserve that vision for as long as the technology is around. However, by not waiting for the home version, I got to be thrilled once more to a movie screening of a film I'd dreamed of for thirty years before it showed up. I remember saying to my friend, Dan Hasegawa, after we saw "The Empire Strikes Back", that the puppetry and set design in that movie were the way to go in putting Lord of the Rings on screen. Although that version might be wonderful, I doubt that it would stand up very well to the rigors of the story that Peter Jackson told over the course of three films, that when viewed in their extended editions total twelve hours of movie. I'm glad they waited and I'm glad I get a chance to talk about it.

In 2001, when The Fellowship first opened, I was not blogging and it never occurred to me that I could share my enthusiasm with anyone not right in front of me. Here we are ten years later and I hope that some of you that I don't know, or at least don't know personally will find my comments motivational. You should all look for a chance to see this movie on the big screen in whatever form you can. Most of you have probably done so already, but you need to go back, because it is just as inspiring again, even with the passage of time. "Fellowship" is my favorite of the three films. Most of the fanatics I know prefer "The Two Towers", and of course "Return of the King" won a bucket-load of awards including Best Picture from the motion picture academy. The opening film though is a promise made and a promise kept. There is great fidelity to the original story created by Tolkien, and it showed us that the film makers were taking this project quite seriously. I have to admit, I sometimes still dream of Sean Connery as Gandalf, not because Ian McKellan had any fault but because that is the casting I had in my head since the late seventies. Once Sir Ian takes the screen, there is no doubt he is the wizard we want. Fellowship contains his most dramatic moment, his fall in the mines or Moria. When Amanda was in middle school, reading the books a year or so before the movie came out, she got to that part, and came out of her room crying and sat on my lap weeping at the tragedy. Last night, despite my having read the books a dozen times and seen the movies at least as much, I was moved almost as much. The other big emotional moment for me is the brief fall and sad but honorable resurrection of Boromir. Capping the end of the first film, we know that there is drama in these movies and not just action visualized for the masses.

Peter Jackson gave a nice three or four minute introduction to the film, and then the extended version played. There were probably differences in the prologue, but the first visual distinction I saw was that the titles come up not on the green fields of the Shire, but the warm interior of Bag End. Bilbo is working on his autobiographical adventure story and maps, notes and writing implements are scattered around the room. He becomes a more important character in the story by this earlier placement and it also reminds most of us geeks what we have to look forward to in December of 2012. The other changes add details that make events clearer for anyone who had not read the books. We understand Aragorn's self imposed exile better, the treachery of Sauraman is more vivid, and the gifts of Galadriel are more clearly placed in the story. My favorite new inclusion is the stanza of verse that Sam adds to the lament for Gandalf. His character is deepened even more by this one or two minute scene. Sam is the heart of this movie, and it is the first glimpse we get of how deeply he feels about everything that is happening. It may decrease the emotional impact of the late scene as he and Frodo separate from the others, but it makes his heart seem not only stout but warm as well.

You all have seen the movies I'm sure, but you ought to see them this way to get the full measure of the story. The extended versions on the big screen, with an enthusiastic audience is a great way to spend an evening. I know that it is largely a promotional tool to sell Blu ray copies of a film most of you probably own. Well it works, and it comes by that effect honestly. Next week when we see Two Towers, I am sure there will be similar inspiring moments that remind me of the magic of Middle Earth but also the magic of the theatrical experience.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8

Once upon a time, there was a world when movies focused on story, character and inventiveness. That was the world that many people claim was changed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with the one two punch of Jaws and Star Wars. Many cinema lovers have bemoaned the influence of special effects and self conscious references to pop culture and other movies that have come along since. While there were clearly thousands of movies to love prior to the end of the 1970s, they are loved as films of their time. Historical epics and personal dramas always seem dated, simply because styles change. It does not mean that the films are worthless, It means that they become pieces of their time and place. The end of the 70's brought new styles, that were substantially more ambitious and at the same time simpler. Visualization could not go back to pre-2001 standards, but stories needed more personal and warmer ways of making those fantasies and reality based stories work. While Lucas pursued the technology that will eventually lead to virtual characters and scenery, Spielberg thrived in the storytelling of the everyday, using visuals as a counterpoint to the narrative on the screen, not as a replacement for it. The period between 1975 and 1993 is the era of the true Spielberg touch. Don't get me wrong, I think Spielberg has made some amazing films since then, but they are stylistically different and of a new era. J.J. Abram's "Super 8", is a film that could fit into this Spielberg golden age with ease.

Many of the touchstones of a Spielberg film of those times are on display here. Children are the main protagonists, many are missing a parent or have a parent in the stages of arrested development. The movie plays in a small town that could easily be a Spielberg suburb. The lighting comes right from the template of such films as "Close Encounter of the Third Kind" and "E.T.". All that is missing is a poignant theme and a dramatic fanfare from John Williams to complete the picture. That said, although the film harkens back to the classic period of Spielberg films, it is very much an Abrams film from the get go. The classic set ups are interrupted and highlighted by screen flare. The action sequences are intense and fast, without the slow build up of many of the Spielberg films. Characters are not always likable, even when they are our heroes. There is however one more important similarity in "Super 8" to those Spielberg classics. The child actors are one hundred percent dead on. The director has gotten performances out of the kids that no one else seems capable of doing these days. There are moments in the movie when the acting is so polished and right for the tone of the film, you might wonder what planet these kids came from. There is a scene where the female character has to play a character in a movie, and be so effective at performance that we forget we are watching a performance inside of a performance. The boys respond like real boys would in that situation. Later on there is the right amount of jealous petulance to make the friendship here seem real as opposed to artificial. The screenplay by Abrams works well but it has to be sold by the best ensemble acting by kids since "Stand By Me".

Earlier, I said that the action scenes are quick, without the slow build of the old Spielberg. I don't mean that the movie does not have any build up. Everything leading up to the train wreck is paced well and builds character naturally. But when the crash happens, there are no double takes, moments of pause to set up another stunt or build more tension. In "Jurassic Park", the T-Rex attack takes ten minutes and has a dozen bits of business in it, "Super 8" does it's big set piece in half the time, without any heavy objects dangling precipitously, or any slowly deteriorating rope, glass, walls or trees. Tension in this movie comes from sudden surprises, and some dramatic violence that doesn't feel like the old master. This is where you can see J.J. Abrams style is dramatically distinct from Spielberg's. There were a bucket load of films produced by but not directed by Spielberg in the 80's time-frame;"Gremlins", "Goonies", "Poltergeist" and "Young Sherlock Holmes" all come to mind. This movie feels like it could be part of that pack.

Anyone who loves movies should appreciate that a big part of this film is dedicated to young filmakers trying to put together a movie. Chuck, the kid directing the zombie movie within a movie, is conversant in story telling. He has an idea of what production value means and he cares about the performances of his friends, the amateur actors of his movie. Joe, is our main character and hero. He is a jack of all trades on the movie set and does whatever his friend needs him to do, the perfect production assistant. The idea of trying to accomplish something good with very little resources, is something all film students will recognize. The location is exactly right, it looks like it could be Ohio, without having to run to Canada to film the town. The music soundtrack is populated with songs that would be mixed very much the way they were in this film, a power pop rocker, followed by a disco themed New Wave dance tune and then throw in some ELO. Abrams is probably aping himself with these characters since he is of the right age and place to be one of them. His recall of the spirit of the times rings pretty accurately.

There are only a couple of reservations that I have about the film. I know it is a long standing practice to make the military the bad guy in science fiction films. Those movies like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or even "E.T." showed authorities as the real danger to us. Those dangers seem to occur not because of maliciousness but out of ignorance or a misguided way of trying to manage a problem. This movie makes the military, in particular the Air Force, evil. The colonel in charge is not just a bureaucrat, he is single minded and mostly indifferent to the people he swore an oath to defend. I don't know how they could crack the nut of the story without having an organization like this in charge, but the reckless way the Air Force is referred to left me saddened that some kid somewhere is going to think that is what soldiers and airmen are like. It bugs me. The other element that I thought was a bit weak was the quickness of the resolution of the story. There are seeds planted of course, early in the film, but they germinate much too quickly in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything else was well developed, from the bitterness of the two dads, to the romance that is hinted at from the beginning. I think there is five more minutes of story needed to work out the resolution with the "secret" in the story and the adult characters. Other than these two things the movie is pitch perfect.

If you are a fan of science fiction, Steven Spielberg, action horror, and good story telling, this is a movie for you. The actors make it all work and the writer director has taken inspiration from his producer to bring us one of the best films from Hollywood this year. This movie works and will satisfy the movie goer and the film connoisseur at the same time. This is the most Spielberg like movie since Jurassic Park, and it comes from a writer-director we are seeing hit his stride in the last three or four years.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-Men: First Class

I forget sometimes how much I like going to the movies in the middle of the week. The crowds are less, it is a distraction from the obligations of the work week, and it gets me out of the house and out of my rut. I can usually see something that was not high on my list of priority's after some of the other big films have dominated my attention on the weekend. This week is a little different, I saw X-Men First Class, tonight because I had not rushed in over the weekend, so it was not a second tier choice but it was something that got put off for other reasons. It is nice to have something that was this well put together on the regular week agenda, instead of some movie I chose because it was what started next. I'm sure some of the pleasure I took in tonight's viewing is a result of not having to be in class at the end of the term, but most of it is due to the quality of the movie.

Ten years ago, we saw the first of the X-Men movies and were also impressed by how well a fantastical story had been translated into a real movie. In a cartoon, you can believe almost anything because it is so unusually imagined in the first place, one more step seems small. When you translate it to film with actors, the results could be laughable. When I was a kid, I was not a big comic geek, but I did prefer Marvel characters to those of the D.C. Universe. However, I have no memory of X-Men at all, my knowledge came only from the animated TV show that my kids watched occasionally. Like I said, we really liked it, but the second X-Men movie was the pinnacle of the story and remains my personal favorite. This new version is an attempt to launch the series anew, which seems strange for a movie franchise that has only been around for a decade and has four successful films to it's credit. It is true that the last two films were a bit pedestrian in nature, in part because of new directors and a continuing storyline that needed to be wrapped up. This movie works well as a prequel, telling us of the origins of characters we met in earlier films and setting up the conflicts that will make up much of the story we have already seen.

The director on this version, is Matthew Vaughn,who made two of my favorite movies of the last few years: Stardust and Kick Ass. This movie is a larger scale than those things but there are some elements that made him a good choice for this movie. He has a good visual sense when it comes to character and location. He is also solid in getting as much out of a story as possible without too much exposition. Both Dolores and Amanda thought the movie was a little episodic and too quest based. I did not feel that way, I thought there was a pretty natural evolution in the story. There is one sequence that seems a little unnecessary, the capture of a renegade X-Men character in the Soviet Union. I thought there was otherwise good economy in telling us how the X-Men were gathered and how the sides ended up being divided. I have no doubt that there are literature majors and philosophy students that could go into all the allegories that the whole series sets up. This movie does not dwell on those points, rather it acknowledges them and moves on to develop the narrative. The setting of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis works well at providing a danger to the world, but not yet one posed by the war of the X-Men to come.

As I have done in a number of other posting, I would like to recognize some of the character actors that make films work, even if their names do not put butts in the seats. Oliver Platt has been a favorite around our house for years. I had no idea he was in this movie until he showed up. His role looked like it would be significant, but it finished somewhat unsatisfactorily. Michael Ironside is a face everyone will recognize but most will not know by name. He shows up and does a small but effective take on a military commander, a part he has done many times before, and probably why he feels well cast in the bit role. One of the X-Men is played by the kid from "About a Boy", which remains an always watchable, perfect film, here at our house. I did not recognize him at all but Dolores spotted him pretty quickly.

This is a solid entertainment that raises the quality level of the X-Men franchise back to the peaks that it reached in the first couple of movies. There will be more films in the series as well, but to succeed they will want to take the time necessary to develop a good story, not just a new entry in the franchise. Studios always want product in the pipeline, and a film every two or three years from a pedigree series fits the ticket. Audiences will turn away from most of these films if they fail to meet the standards set early on. The reason the Batman series needed a re-boot is because the movies just became product. X-Men First Class does not feel like an obligatory entry in a franchise based on timing, it feels like a well thought out film and it plays like one that the makers cared about enough to get it right,

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Summer Movie Projects 2011

Last summer, exactly a year ago as a matter of fact, I started this blog with the 70s summer movie retrospective. I covered a lot of odd films but also some well beloved popular movies. I am going to continue posting reviews of films I see in theaters this year, but I thought I would add some occasional theme posts for the summer. I may do an 80s retrospective but I hope to pull in a few of you who read the blog periodically by asking you to respond to certain movie prompt postings. For instance, listing your favorite movie poster for a particular film genre, or guiltiest comedy pleasures. The family is driving some of the topic ideas but I want the community to offer suggestions as well.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. I love this movie poster, it is from a wonderful adventure film set in the 1930's. If you are looking forward to the Spielberg "Tintin" movie this Christmas, you should love this movie.

Even if you don't care for the film, you have got to love the poster. This is an art deco, sci-fi retro dream come true.

Is there a poster that you think is as beautiful? Let me see it. Please post a link or the image itself. If I get enough suggestions, I'll put together a slide show and we will all discuss together.

Friday, June 3, 2011

In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone - The Atlantic

In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone - The Atlantic

This was an interesting article. The author made several valid points but I think he might be a little over sensitive to being in a theater alone. I have done that for 40 years and felt singled out not once. Lonely a few times, but mostly satisfied that I did not have to share my popcorn with anyone.