Friday, July 29, 2011

History of the Title Sequence

A History Of The Title Sequence from jurjen versteeg on Vimeo.

A brilliant little film showing major innovations in Movie Title in a simple graphic format.

Cowboys & Aliens

When we saw this trailer months ago, it was pretty exciting. James Bond and Indiana Jones in the same movie and they play cowboys. Then you add on a layer of WTF, just to make sure that the geek in all of us is salivating for this. The concept is fun, just saying the title. You would have to do serious damage to screw this up. I am pleased to say that no serious damage is done. This is the movie that you expect it to be, it relies a lot on the appeal of the stars but more than anything, it is the concept that makes this payoff. Cowboys on horseback, shooting guns at aliens in spacecraft.  Yep, it is as simple as that.

One of the reasons I like doing the blog is that I have been burned by professional reviews and critiques on a number of occasions. If a storyline or actor or concept is appealing, I think I should give it a chance. Sure I may end up seeing something that pisses me off, but at least I am pissed off because I made my own judgement. If I stay away from a theater, because some one else"s opinion scared me away, I am putting a lot of trust in that other persons opinion. Once upon a time there were critics that mattered and I would listen to.  I have found though that I am much more satisfied being driven to a film by criticism than being driven away from one. Positive comments have brought me to movies like last year's "City Island". The negative commentary on a film may be accurate but if it contradicts my natural instincts, should I trust it?  There were a number of weak notices for the current film. One clever writer subtitled their Review, "Cowboys shoots itself in the foot." I sure don't want to be disappointed but I also don't want someone else telling me to ignore my core instincts. When they are right, I have only myself to blame for spending money on trash, but if they are wrong and I listened to them, then I blame myself, and them for missing out on something that would have been a pleasure. I can find things to like in most films, when something irritates me I'm glad to share. I don't think people should read my opinions and deny themselves a movie they would enjoy, but I do want others to know how I feel and I am happy to have them share with me. Reviews in mainstream papers and other media outlets could discourage you from seeing Cowboys and Aliens, if they do, you are missing something you probably would have liked.

One of the professional reviews I read said that this movie adds nothing to the western genre and it uses a lot of western cliches to simplify the storytelling. Except for a movie like last years remake of "True Grit", there are nearly zero westerns released most years. I can think of a half dozen over the last five to ten years. So who is going to be overly familiar with those western cliches except old guys like me that used to see westerns in theaters and still watch them on video? My daughters best friend watched "Silvarado" at the house a few weeks ago, she is twenty three, it was the first western she had ever seen. "Cowboys and Aliens" is made for casual viewers of the western genre, not John Wayne enthusiasts or obsessive viewers of Sergio Leone. You get a solid set up of the western conventions, and then a huge twist is thrown in to make it different and fun. The term "mash-up" is being used to describe this film, but I think a mash up is more about genres that make no sense together. This movie is told as if it were a straight action film, and the events could have actually taken place in the old west. Now if Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford started dancing and singing, that would be a mash up. Here, they are conventional western archetypes, put into a different kind of conflict. Very little of this is science fiction. The aliens could simply be a different Indian tribe the cowboys are encountering.

There is a central mystery, several character lines and an action story being told in the running time of the movie. Harrison Ford is so grizzled, he could be playing the Gabby Hayes role in the movie. Daniel Craig is more stoic than Clint Eastwood. My guess is he has fewer lines than just about any Eastwood western ever. Some good character actors get to play in a western movie. Keith Carradine belongs in a movie like this, it would be nice if there was a little more for him to do because he is so good. Walter Goggins is an actor we have found in the TV series "Justified", which is basically a modern western. He is doing the Strother Martin prairie scum part very effectively and has some of the funniest moments in the film. Sam Rockwell is just good in everything he does, his part does payoff here but it would be nice if there were more to it.

The alien stuff is fun, but they do not dwell on scientific explanations, or drool over the technology that has been invented for the movie. Yes the aliens are the antagonists but we do not really need to know much more about them than they are nasty and see humans as little more than insects. This is a shoot em up, with some fun images, a wacky idea and some terrific actors. everybody has fun for a couple of hours and then we go home. My oldest daughter said when the movie was over, "That's exactly what I wanted from this movie." I must concur. If you are interested in the premise and the combination of the actors, you will get what you are looking for. If you want groundbreaking genre transforming cinema, then I guess you might be disappointed. I would only have been disappointed if I had let weak word of mouth keep me out of the theater. It's pretty much exactly what you think it's going to be, and that's why you are there in the first place, right?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Some movies are not designed to be analyzed or valued. They are to be consumed and then disposed of. "Horrible Bosses" is one of those movies that is like a Big Mac, it is not good for you, if you think about it too long you will feel guilty about consuming it, but while you are in the middle of it, it goes down pretty well. Nowadays, most films are in one of two camps; great big blockbuster or esoteric indie material. There needs to be room in the middle for movies that are entertaining to a larger audience but do not require the entire budget of a small South American nation to produce.

This movie is in that middle area. It is made by professionals, it looks good for the most part and it does not involve six months of CGI to make any scenes work. So it has to work on the basis of the premise, the script and the performances. The premise is high concept comedy. Oppressed workers consider killing their bosses to get out of their misery. Murder is often used to comic effect in movies despite being a serious subject and socially taboo. If we buy into the concept that this is just a comedy and that the actions that follow are not an endorsement of the behavior, we should be able to laugh at the complications as they come up.  When I was a kid, I remember watching a Glen Ford movie called "The Gazebo" which focused on the efforts of a largely likable man to hide the body of a murder victim. It was hysterical when I was nine or ten, so that must be the point at which we can distinguish real from imaginary crimes.

There are sufficient plot complications to make the story amusing, although sometimes the complications are a bit of a stretch and do not advance the story. We get plenty of reasons to share the view of our protagonists in the story. The bosses are indeed horrible. The explanations concerning why each of the characters feels murder is the only way out are adequate but not always realistic. It sound silly to discuss realism in what is essentially a Three Stooges movie with an R rating. We don't need too strong a reason to buy into the plan, but if we think there is an obviously rational alternative, it will not be the comedy of desperation but instead the humor of sadism that moves us forward. There are a couple of sustained sequences of humor as each of the three desperate employees participates in  an information gathering break in at their bosses house. On joke from Annie Hall is repeated but with enough of a twist to make it amusing. There is also some broad physical comedy involving a pert, and they manage to get three laughs out of it.

The performers are ultimately going to be responsible for selling this and making us laugh. The three bosses are a little underdeveloped but they are actually played by the three biggest names in the cast. The marketing for the film does point out their presence but it never suggests that they are anything more than supporting players in the movie. The leads are Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day. Bateman is a solid actor who has been in dramatic films but ism largely familiar as a comedic actor. The other two I am unfamilar with but I suspect they are in some comedy show that I have not seen. They seem to be solid at playing the humor for what is in the script pretty well. There are a lot of throwaway lines that have a kernel of humor in them, and they get just enough attention to make us hang on. I had about five or six big laughs in the movie, and a dozen or so smiles and chortles. It is not brain surgery, it is a ninety minute summer comedy that plays well enough to entertain for a while.

We need to continue to have films that play to a broad audience so that our social system continues to function. Shared communal experiences give us something for small talk and common references. You can recommend or warn people away from a movie, but it helps if it is a movie that enough people have seen that they might be drawn to it, and it can't be something everyone will have seen because then there is limited interest in the discussion. I don't mean to suggest this movie will save Western Civilization, but the fact that it exists means that couples can go out on a date. They can share the experience, and they can forget about it quickly if it interferes with their lives. It also means they can laugh together a couple of times and not feel like there is too much riding on that silly ninety minutes.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

'The Undefeated'

I like politics and I know that many of the people that read this blog enjoy a good political debate as well. This documentary is clearly going to provoke some strong emotions on the part of viewers, regardless of the point on the political spectrum they fall. I want to talk about it as a movie first but it is a subject that is impossible to separate from from the medium. I have seen a number of documentaries that I have disagreed with politically, but the form that the filmaking took was clever and entertaining. I have also seen documentaries that are nothing more than a political agenda masquerading as films. "The Undefeated" falls into a middle ground for me. It is competently put together and it is a fascinating subject.  If however you are not interested in Sarah Palin at all, then the film is unlikely to keep your attention because it is so traditional in the way that the talking heads are overlapped with the visual images. This is a political film and not an entertainment. That might actually make it superior to a number of other movies because you are never in doubt about the viewpoint of the film maker.

The structure of the movie is simple. It is a chronological look at the political career of the most charismatic political figure on the public stage today. This is a woman that gets attention because she is expressing her views in a clear and interesting way, and she is not shy about who she is. The President was seen in his campaign as charismatic, but I think his charisma is largely a part of the symbolism he represented. As a speaker he is dry, long winded and has a tendency to talk in a condescending manner to his audience( although not nearly as condescending in tone as Al Gore). Palin's charisma is tied into her political philosophy true, but she has personality to burn and it shines on camera and on stage. This documentary uses clips of her speeches and narrative audio tracks from her book to give us an image of the person she is.  We get very limited images from any time before she was in the public arena. In large part the opening section of the movie is more about Alaska than Palin.

The issues that are outlined early on in the state's history, become focal points for the accomplishments of the Governor from the 49th state. There are ethics issues,oil issues and environmental issues that are the highlights of the terms that Palin served in Alaskan government service. So while the movie marches in a straight chronological line, those are the markers along the path that indicate where we are in the story. There is one element that is outside of this basic structure, and that is the opening sequence. For nearly two minutes we are subjected to a string of sound bites and video clips of pundits, celebrities and media figures saying the most vile things imaginable. They toss off the insults casually with little consequence, and the degree to which it becomes part of the political narrative of the media is astonishing. I thought the film might be focused on the way the political media has tried to erase her from the map. There is a John Ziegler film that covers that territory so I should probably seek it out. This movie focuses more on what Palin accomplished as a public servant. Politics is a background but government is the main focus.

Her time as Mayor of Wasilla is covered very briefly but in as much detail as you are likely to need. She was aggressive about growth, focused on limited government and she was re-elected by 75% of the voters in her town. A large portion of time is devoted to the Alaskan  Oil and Natural Resources Commission that she served on. There was quite a bit of corruption there and she rose to public attention statewide because she challenged the way that business was being done. The political enemies that she hurt the most were fellow Republicans. She is clearly not a political hack and is largely involved in this process to do the right thing by her fellow Alaskan citizens. She resigned from the job, which payed in the six figures, to an uncertain future, because she would not put up with the backroom deals that were short changing the citizens. Seven members of  Alaska government regulation agencies resigned in protest of the actions that the then Governor Frank Murkowski was taking in regard to oil company leases.  Later, several legislators were charged with public corruption by the F.B.I.. Palin's campaign for Governor was based largely on reform of these corrupt practices.

Her term as Governor is covered very completely by the documentary. It highlights the reforms she pursued and the substantial accomplishments she achieved. Her success was largely bi-partisan, with near unanimous support of changes from the Legislature. The complexities of the oil leasing business and the tax regulation system are explained in clear and concise segments of the movie. Everything leading up to the naming of her as a Vice Presidential nominee is pretty boiler plate history with a little bias in the manner of the storytelling.  This takes us two thirds of the way through the movie. We have had a largely mechanical description of her rise to power and the success she she made of that power. If it could be used for political purpose, that is not because it was cut in a dramatic way or elements of the story were changed to make it more dynamic. Any political use of the film up to this point would be the equivalent of taking a high school history documentary film and trying to turn it into a political message.

Once we get to the late summer of 2008, the nature of the movie shifts. It does become more clearly a political biography with a battling central figure. The first appearances of   conservative political commentators like Andrew Brietbart and Mark Levin, signal a shift to image building by the film makers. This is where the controversial stuff gets started and the connection to the Tea Party Movement is made. I think it is largely accurate in the conclusions that are reached, but here the agenda is much more deliberately political. If you want Sarah Palin to be presented as an effective political figure, I think it makes more sense to let the V.P. Acceptance speech and the Wisconsin speech on the labor unrest from last April do the talking for her. We can hear the radio folks most days of the week, let's watch Sarah work the crowd at a Tea Party Rally, talk to more of the people who make up that movement. We needed to hear from those candidates that she helped by her endorsements and appearances.  This is one of the places where the skills of the film makers are not up to their ambitions.

The cliches of documentaries are present in the movie in a number of  places. The music is frequently too urgent and dramatic in the background. It sounds unremittingly tense when all that is happening is people are on screen talking. There are a lot of talking heads and they are shot to build energy by pulling in and moving back or shifting from one side very quickly. It was quite annoying. I also don't get why they are all against a white background. They ought to be in their offices, on the steps of the state capitol, or sitting at the microphone in their studios. It seemed a weak film making choice to me. I did like the singing of the Minstrel Boy  hymn at the start and finish of the movie. That did set a tone of combativeness and resolve that the director wants to emphasize about Sarah Palin. There are many interesting transition and signpost images in the film. They work at signalling the subject but they sometimes take us out of whatever drama there is and remind us that this is a movie.

From a values perspective, I probably agree with Sarah Palin  ninety percent of the time or more. I never thought she was stupid but I know people who were convinced she was by the coverage she received in 2008. Her qualities as a foreign policy leader may be less than some, but they are certainly equal to the current occupant of the White House. This film attempts to show that Palin was also a competent and skilled public servant, and a critical voice for a segment of public opinion. It accomplishes that but it is unlikely that doubter will seek this out to discover for themselves her qualities. If you do get a chance to see it, "The Undefeated" is a effective but somewhat tame approach to selling Sarah Palin. I liked it a lot but I wish it had been better executed and I would not mind some red meat to go along with the meal.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Joe Johnston is a director that has made some fantastic movies and my guess is that most people would not know his name. He tried and largely failed to make "The Wolfman" a marketable film  after the original director and the star Benicio Del Toro fell out on the vision of the movie. My favorite of Johnston's films is "The Rocketeer" with maybe "October Sky in second  place. Both of those movies have something that "Captain America" needs in spades, and that is a heart that is set in traditional values. Those movies were set in the past and Johnston knows how to evoke that past really well. The first thirty or forty minutes of Captain America consists of images from America, in the process of fighting World War Two. These are not combat images, but looks at the homefront.  New York City is shown to be a tough place to live but also the sparkling jewel that nostalgia wants us to remember. There was not any 1943 World's Exhibition that I know of but New York did have the World's Fair in 1939 and the invented World Exhibition clearly took it's inspiration from the futurist visions of the 39 Fair. The sleek looks of the future were started there and in the movie we are talking about now, they come to life in the laboratory of the American Project, the munitions plants of the Nazi spawned Hydra organization and the cars and planes that are featured throughout the story. The style of Johnston in those places is reminiscent of the Hugh's factory featured in "The Rocketeer", the lighting and angles are evocative of an earlier time when the world was more direct in the way we saw ourselves.

The sense of accuracy starts with all of the usual things that make a movie work. Let me start with something that I can't remember writing about extensively in any of my blog posts before, costumes. The look of America in WWII is found in a thousand photographs of the times. Check a high school yearbook, or view the family album of your parents, or more likely now, your grandparents, and you will find the distinctive clothing. Steve Rogers, our hero appears in simple street clothes that were visible in those photos. If you have a picture of your dad or grandad in uniform during the war, he probably looks like Bucky Barnes, Captain America's best friend. The tweed of Dr. Erskine fits an academic of the day and the military uniform of Peggy Carter is as sharp as the ones worn by Dinah Shore in "Up in Arms" from 1944. Schmidt's car is not real as far as I know, but it looks like a nightmare of power and Teutonic arrogance that could easily have been made in those times. The Bowler hat with the Sgt' stripes worn by one of Roger's team is of course silly, but it looks like it could be real. This is a fantasy that is being run through a prism of reality and our memory of what the reality was. The costume that Captain America conducts his War Bond sales shows in, is the way a hero would be imagined in a 1940's comic book. When the suit gets changed, the alterations are not dramatic but they are practical and they keep the patriotic spirit that the comic character and the movie need to have to work.

The tone of the movie is set early on by the undefeatable spirit of a young man, desperate to contribute to his country. He is not trying to prove himself to anyone, he wants to be like everyone else, a contributor to the defeat of the enemy. There is a key point in the film when Steve Rogers is questioned and asked if he wants to go kill Nazis like all the other men, his answer is what makes him a real hero. The earnest motives and morals of the American spirit are contained in a young man that is not physically able to match those feelings. This is the sign that he is the right man to give this power to.  Everything that precedes the transformation of Steve Rogers into Captain America, is needed to make this story soar as a real character we can root for and not just another super hero to turn loose on the movie screens of the world this summer. There were some hints months ago that the movie would downplay the American exceptionalism that makes Captain America what he is. There was even talk that the movie would simply be titled "The First Avenger", to broaden the international audience. I don't know how the marketing of this movie is going in the rest of the world, but this movie sells American ideals and spirit. Yes, many of those are ideals shared with other nations, as is indicated by the Captain's team, but it matters that he is American and you cannot disguise that in this story or movie. Just as he did in "October Sky", Johnston manages to get real American ideals on the screen, without having to wave a flag. Unless you take a close look at that big ass shield that Cap is throwing around.

My knowledge of Captain America prior to this film is limited to the few comic books I can recall from when I was nine, ten or eleven. There was a limited movement cartoon version of Captain America that I watched along with all the other Marvel characters in the 1960s. I have been singing the theme song for forty plus years, but I am not an expert on the character.

This is the memory I have and if this is not accurate don't tell me. I want the current film to be my standard for what Captain America is.

There is plenty of action in the movie, but the action all seems to serve the story and reflect the world that these characters are supposed to exist in. The pacing of the film is steady, it is an origins story so it has all the classical elements of the super hero early narrative. They are not in a rush to get to the slam bang action, instead the story builds and leads us into action that we will appreciate all the more when it finally does show up. The two super hero films this most feels like are "Ironman" and "Superman". We get a clear logical development of the powers that we are going to see like we did in Ironman, and it is backed by the down to earth goodness of our hero and the world he comes from like "Superman". Next year Marvel Studios has a Hero all star film coming out called "The Avengers". We have been getting hints of it in the Ironman, Hulk and Thor films of the last few years. The addition of Captain America makes me want to see this movie more than I ever had before. They have great potential with this character and I hope they don't muck it up and let him get lost among all the other heroes.

The actors do a good job in their parts. Chris Evans is cast perfectly in his role as Steve Rogers/Captain America. The effects work used in the first part of the film is a couple of steps beyond what we saw in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". It is much more convincing and less obviously computer generated. Tommy Lee Jones just has to show up and be himself to make his part work, but he does get all the best one liners in the movie so pay close attention when he speaks, all of the verbal humor is in his dialogue. There are some visual jokes but nothing that will take you out of the movie. Everything fits together really well and makes this so far the highlight of the summer (along with Harry Potter).  Watch the credits all the way through for the Avengers teaser but also watch them for the spectacular WWII era art work that is meshed into the film so well. The show tune that is featured in the movie is a perfect fit for the kind of entertainment people would have sought out before Television and the internet. This film recreates a time and place that only the oldest of our parents and grandparents will recall, but it will make it an era that you wish you could have lived in an fought for. It is a comic book tribute to the greatest generation. We can never do them any justice for the burden and sacrifice they bore, but we can cheer on their spirit and the values they tried to save for all of us. This movie absolutely rocks and I can't imagine anyone would not enjoy it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

A few years ago we stayed up till all hours of the night to go to a Mid-night screening of the first Transformers movie.  The toys were well after my childhood and came mostly before my kids time. Also, they were girls and we had a lot of pound puppies and unicorns around the house. We did not know what to expect except space robots that turned into vehicles. That movie turned out to be loud and stupid and much more fun than it had any right to be.  Shia LeBeuof was starring and we barely knew who he was much less how to say his name. Megan Fox was just a picture on a poster, who knew she was about to become an "It" girl. Here we are six years later and I'm sorry to say, Shia is a household name, but not yet a great actor, Megan Fox has dropped off the radar, and the Transformer movies are as stupid as they ever were but they have lost the charm they once contained.

Many on line sites have been very supportive of this film, especially in comparison to the second movie. As far as I was concerned they both had the same weaknesses that made them inferior to the first film. The stories are overly complicated, the action is bigger, louder and less clear. The humor in the movies has gotten overdone and does not seem genetic to the films or the characters. "Dark Side of the Moon" starts well, goes off the tracks and then recovers a little with some spectacular scenes of Chicago being destroyed. Other than that it has little going for it.

I always knew the formula for Michael Bay photography and storytelling. I've seen almost all of his movies and those that he has produced but not directed himself. After watching "Team America", it is hard to get out of the formula and just concentrate on the story. Since the Transformer Movies largely consist of the same story repeated over and over, there is not enough to distract from the overdone slow motion, sun drenched heroics with matching score. It has become a exercise in watching the cliches and wondering if they will stick out too much. They stuck out plenty in this movie, but fortunately we waited until enough other films were in 3D that we could see this in a standard screening. Otherwise the visual hokum would be intolerable. This movie has been out for three weeks and I was surprised at the number of people there for a weekday afternoon screening. It was not packed but the audience was enthusiastic. The kids behind us were not taking any of it seriously, but they did suck in their breath at some robot punches and they cheered the destruction of the appropriate Decepticons.

John Malkovich is in this movie for no reason whatsoever. Francis McDormand is also in the film and while she is a little more relevant as character, I am not sure why they needed her as an actress. She brings little of the steely resolve she is known for, she is slumming in an underwritten comedy part. However compared to Malkovich, her part is complex. He has no relevance to the story, adds nothing interesting to the film, and his mugging which can be hysterical in the right movie (Burn After Reading) was just annoying here. John Turturro was on the radio the other day promoting another project and he sounded so bright and engaging. It is sad that he has to pay the bills doing nothing work like this. There was a humorous story line with his character in the first movie, but here it is stretched to buffoonery.  The one great appearance in the movie is by Buzz Aldrin, a real American Hero. The Apollo program is integrated into the story in a clever way, and then all the inventiveness goes out of the movie.

There is nothing wrong with a dumb summer movie, but this one just feels redundant and convoluted. I like watching stuff blow up as much as the next guy, but there ought to be a reason for it. Here the only reason is to get your money. We get a sucker punch joke about Obama being the one to award Sam his medal, and there is a quick Star Trek joke based on Leonard Nimoy's voice work in the movie and a line from some of the Star Trek films. Except for the set up and Buzz Aldrin, this movie makes only a token effort to be better that the widely flogged Revenge of the Fallen, and is not close to the first movie in gee whiz charm. Enjoy it for what it is but don't expect to remember anything about it afterwards, it is quickly digested. I hope for better with a couple of upcoming big summer flicks.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2"

We came a little late to the Harry Potter books, but we had started them by the time the first movie came out 10 years ago. It has been a journey that marked the childhood of both of my kids and reminded me so much of what it was that I loved about reading when I was young. There is adventure and heroism and the fantasy that the world around us had secrets which at any moment could change our lives. The accomplishment of the books is one of the great stories of success that an individual writer can take credit for. J.K. Rowling's imagination grew with each volume and the story came together in a coherent way that made the previous stories more meaningful. That it became a worldwide phenomena and that she became the most financially successful author in history, will deserve it's own books and movie at some future date. To take the next step and create the films was a shrewd move on the part of Warner Brothers and the producers. I don't think that it was as big a gamble as many would believe because of the incredible impact the books had, this was a series of works far more likely to have a wide audience than any other literary work that had come along before.. For me, the audacity of the project was to attempt to film it using the same group of young actors as they grew up. There have been eight movies over the course of 10 years. Rowling was able to take her time getting a new book out, and the audience would be waiting and begging for the next installment. Because there were already three books written when the film series started, there was plenty of time to develop each screenplay and plan the next movie. The books promoted the next movie which created anticipation for the next book until all of the novels were written and we could hardly stand the wait for the movies to catch up. Now that we have, it is a meal to savor but one on which there is the foreknowledge that no dessert is coming. That means we should eat this up as much as we can now.

In preparation for seeing Deathly Hallows Part 2, I went back and watched the earlier seven movies. It is clear how the story started off and a children's fantasy and grew darker with each chapter. Kids grow up, and the simple world they lived in fades each day with new challenges. The Potter films did the same thing. There are the uncertainties of social status and friendship in the first two books. The threat is an indirect one, where the kids challenge is slow to build and fast to finish. When we got to the third story, it was a long threat that Harry faced, and it was part of everything he did in the film. Quidditch became less a game and more a moral challenge to the hero. It disappears entirely in the fifth film and returns briefly as part of a adolescent growth story for Harry's friend Ron. Up to this point he has been a sidekick in the whole story. Sure there were important things for him to do, but it was always Harry's story. With the fifth, sixth and seventh films, the characters of Ron and Hermione become equal parts of the story. It is right that they choose to leave Hogwarts with him and go in pursuit of the Horcruxes. To do so though, they have to have stories on a level with Harry to make us care. For me, the saddest part of the whole film series is the pre-title sequence on Deathly Hallows Part one, when Heromine erases her very existence from her parents lives. It will be as if she never existed, this was a grown up sacrifice to protect them from the dark Lord, and a step into a story where it is not certain that everything will come out OK. From the time Cedric Diggory's story is completed in the Goblet of Fire, it is never clear that there will always be a happy ending. The fifth through seventh films all end with the loss of important characters. They are not going to be magically resurrected like Spock in the science fiction films of Star Trek. We see them briefly in many other contexts, but it is clear they are gone and it is the work of Voldemort.

The first time I saw part one of Deathly Hallows, I was uncertain about how I felt about the movie. It does not feel complete, there were many sections of introspective sadness hanging over it, and the friendship of our three heroes was tested in dramatic ways. It really is a lot of set up for the final movie. The more I watched it however the clearer it became that it was an excellent film. There are some great sequences and the actors step forward as adults for the first time. It is an adult story that is only possible if you went on the journey through the previous stories as well. Thursday night, we went to a screening of Part One at nine o'clock, to be followed by the mid-night screening of part two. This was a smart choice on our part because it really is one long story and they fit together so well. There are payoffs that come in part two that mean more because you just saw the first part. The characters growth was easier to see and the drama is more satisfying.

Speaking of long set ups, it is now time to get to our current film. If you have read any of my postings before, you know that I go out of my way to avoid spoilers. I don't want to recap the whole story in a couple of paragraphs and then give you a thumbs up or down. I will stick to that formula, but be aware that some elements of the films quality can only be discussed in the context of story. I don't want to be the tool that drives by a Harry potter Book Release line, shouting out that "_____________ dies". So, there is a fairly quick but very well conceived raid on Gringott's to retrieve another Horcrux. The visuals on this actually exceed my imagination from reading the book. The sequence does not have a huge amount of suspense in it because it is happening so early in the film, we know that it is a step and not a destination. It was still quite exciting and it resolved the plot points of Olivander and the Goblins, quickly and efficiently. There were so many stories from the book that were essential to the action, I was not sure they could do them and make the movie work. Dumbledore's brother and family background are covered in the minimum amount necessary. The whole issue of his connection to the Deathly Hallows and his victory over the Dark wizard Grindlewald are basically expunged. The movie ships large segments of Hogwarts activities to keep the story on Harry but we get some fantastic visualizations of a student life under the cloud of death eater control of the Ministry of Magic and the school. Just a couple of long shots of students marching to the Great Hall, convey the essentials of what has been going on. The back story of the Hogwarts resistance is also lost and we dive into Harry's return to the school and the final confrontation very quickly.

Two fast audience rousing moments occur almost immediately. Harry reveal himself and McGonnagal shows us that she is a formidable opponent not only for the students but adults as well. There was a great cheer when Snape is driven out of the Hall. It is also so interesting that within a short time we reverse our positions and our view of Snape is altered forever. I wanted the sequence with Snape and his memories to live up to my imagination, and the screenwriter and actor do that exactly. This film series has been top notch but has largely been ignored by the film industry when it comes to awards. It is my hope that Alan Rickman will become the actor that receives recognition for his work in the series at next years award season. He has built this character so carefully and in line with the books that when his chance to make it comes, it pays off in spades. As powerful as Harry's story is, and the tears that came with Hedwig and Dobby, this is the most emotional plot element in the series. The coda segment in the book is one section I cannot read out loud without my voice breaking. The few sentences we get 19 years after the end of the story are the most moving tribute to a character I can imagine. If all of us could see the past as clearly we would all be better people.

I looked forward to several moments in the film, and not all of them made it into the story. The battle for Hogwarts actually takes up most of the movie and there is still not time to tell everything. I will say that Mrs. Weasly lived up to my imagination in her fury at Belatrix LaStrange. Malfoy's situation was actually more satisfying to me in the film than in the books. He is still not anyone that you would love, but Harry and Ron's capacity for goodness is illustrated in the most difficult of curcumtances and there was a final benefit that plays it's part in the ultimate confrontation with harry and Voldemort. Neville Longbottom is a character that is so much richer in the books and was largely shunted aside in the movies. He does however get to be the figure he deserves in a key role in the battle. Remember the sword of Griffindor can present itself to any worthy Griffindor in time of need and we know definitively that Neville is worthy after what we see here.

The whole sequence of Harry's confrontation with Voldemort is done in great style and give Daniel Radcliffe a chance to show he is a real actor. He has grown immensely as a performer, and his maturity has matched the stories very well. He needs to be the central Hero and he comes off as heroic, not like someone playing at being a hero, but like someone ready to make an incredible sacrifice. Ralph Finnes, invisible behind the make-up and digital magic, makes Voldemort a more complete villain. There were several points in the eight movies where we got a chance to see how he became what he was. At an early point in the series, Dumbledore tells Harry that it is our choices that define us. We see several places where Tom Riddle made the wrong choices and sealed his doom as Lord Voldemort. Fiennes make an all powerful dark wizard frightening but also incredibly needy. There is a skilled performer there that is not just cashing a paycheck or working out of a sense of obligation to a project he was invited to be a part of. He works the part and gets results that lesser actors would make into a cliche.

Back after the third film came out there was talk that Emma Watson might not do the rest of the films. We are so lucky she stayed on board because the chemistry she and Radcliffe and Rupert Gint have together as Heromine, Harry and Ron, sustains a lost of exposition and quick storytelling. Ron's character is a grown up at the end as well, and another one of those satysfying audience moments is the kiss Hermione and Ron share briefly during the battle. It did not come off as contrived but rather quite genuine. The one key player in the ten year span of the films that had to be replaced was Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I would never say his death was a blessing, but it did lead to a strong actor being cast in a role very effectively. In the long run Michael gambon will always be the Dumbledore that I see in my head as I re-read the books. He was here in the pensive and in a sustained sequence in the afterlife. All of those moments were stronger because he was there.

I am incredibly happy with the way the films have come out. I do like some better than others but all have been amazing. To tell this story as we see the main charcters actually grow up in front of us is one of the great serendipitious achievements of all cinema history. To mount these movies in a ten year period and sustain the quality and committment to the stories is something we may never see again. I am very sad to be saying goodby to everyone in this series. When we were seated in the theater, my wife and I sat next to each other but to be in the row we wanted, we ended up seperated from our kids (now 23 and 24)by the wheelchair spaces. Dolores asked Amanda if she wanted to sit next to me, but she said that she wanted to sit next to her sister as her childhood came to an end. I am so gald we all got to share this experience for the last ten years together. We will see this again with some friends that we have gone to all the other films with, but our family history with Harry potter is now complete. My heart was full but a little heavy as my fatherhood with just kids also closes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


We have been very busy the last few days and I have fallen a bit behind on our Robert Shaw Festival posting. We actually watched this on Sunday. I had a copy for years on VHS, but you know where that has gone, so when I was out a couple of weeks ago, I decided to spring for a new Blu-ray of the film. It looks very solid and except for the lack of extras was a pretty good value.

Force 10 From Navarone is supposed to be a sequel to the Guns of Navarone which was made 17 years earlier. there is a brief two minute intro that summarizes the goal of the commando unit in taking out the guns and then puts two of our actors into the scenario. I could not remember if their characters had the same names as Gregory Peck and David Niven, but I think that was the inference. This time the commando squad has been turned into an assassination team, on its way to eliminate a traitor that has ruined several operations in the Yugoslavian Theater of war WWII. Events bring this team together with an American sabotage mission headed by Harrison Ford's character.

The plot is not in any hurry to get to the action. There is an espionage element and some culture clash along the way. We get double and triple crosses as the team penetrates into areas controlled by the Nazis but also fought over by partisans fighting a guerrilla war in the Slavic areas. This was a very old fashioned war story even for 1978 standards. I know I took Dolores to see it in 1978 because we were big Star Wars fans and it had Ford in his first starring role after the space epic. Robert Shaw must have also been a favorite because I saw almost all of his films, but I don't remember that he was the star that brought me into those movies.

Shaw is the lead in the film, but his part is so standard that he could do it in his sleep, and he doesn't get much chance to shine here. There are some good sardonic asides and a couple of brief action bits, but nothing that was very memorable. I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last night and I thought Shaw would have been terrific as "Mad Eye" Moody. So there was not a lot to add to his legacy from this movie. It is enjoyable but it tends to meander. Shaw's best lines are the last lines in the film and they do try to remind us that heroics are not always about getting the job done, there is a lot more that has to come afterwards as well. Check out the poster below and see how the marketing tries to take advantage of a lot of other films that are more memorable. There are so many Bond veterans here that Cubby Broccoli should have gotten a piece of the action.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Iron Lady Teaser Trailer #1

She was the most important female political figure of the 2oth Century. She may well have saved Great Britain, and along with Ronald Reagan, she pulled Europe out of the clutches of the Iron Curtain. I want a serious biography and Meryl Streep is the right actress to do this part. I hope it is not a political hatchet job.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Larry Crowne

Somewhere, there sits a group of people who cannot imagine any reason to see a movie like this. They smugly dismiss romantic comedies. They believe movies should be targeted at the young. The worst offense a film like this commits in their eyes however is that it fails to be edgy. A film, from the point of view of these people should make us uncomfortable and challenge our points of view. Many of the people in this group, are motion picture producers and executives. As a result we get comic book movies, films that purport to be romantic but are actually sex fantasies that are given a romantic spin, and comedies that use every adjective imaginable as long as it starts with an F, has a compound word starting with F, or features an actor or actress known for something other than acting.

The word of mouth on this movie was not good. On the Mark and Brian radio show, I heard Mark badmouth it just from the trailer. It was a news article that Larry Crowne got a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than did the new Transformers movie. I like comic book, edgy, and raunchy as much if not more than the next person. The problem is that if you dismiss a movie for lacking those things, you will miss many pleasant experiences, that while not always important, do sustain us, much like daily conversation with co-workers does. I am probably part of the target audience for this modestly made adult comedy. I'm over 50, I like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, I worry about the economy and I sometimes ask myself are there second chances if I screw this up this late in my life? Two years ago, "Up in the Air", brought us some similar themes and George Clooney in a sour love story that was biting and timely. Larry Crowne has some of the same themes, but lacks the dark undertone of the Clooney film. It lacks this for a very good reason, it means to entertain us rather than provoke deep self reflection. It is a nice way to spend a couple of hours with some old friends, and not feel like you were beat up for making the effort.

Unlike "Up in the Air", the only nudity featured is an silly moment with Hanks in his underwear, and it had nothing to do with sex. This story about middle aged people working on their second chances, does not try to draw us in with visuals of good looking people past their prime, trying to fake being sexy. There is attraction because the characters see something in the other person that they want for themselves. They don't cheat on their spouse, use sex as a bargaining tool, or lie as a way of manipulating others. It is romantic in nature, but it does not follow the cookie cutter model of so many contemporary romances. There are the requisite cute meets, and the secondary characters that are interesting but undeveloped. You get no explosions, physical or emotional, no snarky insight on politics, and you will not feel assaulted by being in the company of the film maker.

Tom Hanks directed and co-wrote this movie. The previous film that he wrote and directed was "That Thing You Do", which is a perfect piece of charming storytelling. This movie has a lot of charm, but it's narrative is a lot lazier than the 1996 musical. There a lot in this movie that feels real, but it is all layered in Tom Hanks persona and Julia Roberts smile. I liked George Takei as the econ professor, and Ian Gomez as Larry's buddy with the coffee shop. Takei gets a bit more of a chance to shine, his part is fleshed out more. Larry's friends in the scooter club are fun, but you can clearly see that he enjoys them but also knows he is not a kid just winging it like they are. Bryan Cranston plays Julia Roberts husband, who while not a complete douche, is a big enough pig that it is clear why he must ultimately be pushed out of the picture. Pam Grier is always a welcome presence, and here she is used just enough that you feel she is a friend and not just an opportunity for the character to engage in some exposition.

I heard ELO and Tom Petty on the soundtrack in several places. The musical cues work for me. Some one that wants edgy would be looking for a less obvious new talent and unfamiliar songs that make the same points. They would find the comfort in this music off-putting because of it's obviousness. I found the right amount of Tom Petty Charm matched with Tom Hanks' good nature, to make me smile. I teach Speech at a Community College like Roberts character, I know the students that are shown in her class. Some of you reading this are probably that guy, you know, the good natured stoner kid that has some ability but is not focused enough to get out of school what you could. The three or four teachers you see in this movie, sound a lot like the colleagues I work with. The returning students, who all actually read the material, are familiar to me as well.

We get a school based comedy, with a mild romantic plot, centered around a downsized returning student and it takes place in a speech class much of the time. You add the two appealing stars, the galaxy of welcome supporting players and the guidance of a guy like Hanks, who knows what his strengths are, and you get a movie like Larry Crowne. It is adult in the way that once meant adult, without the necessity of an R rating. It won't be remembered as a great film, but it is a nice way to spend a couple of hours, without having to be a hipster or endure eardrum shattering explosions in completely unnecessary 3-D.

Robert Shaw Festival Day 6 JAWS (The Greatest Adventure Film of All Time)

If you have seen this clip before, than you already know the power of Robert Shaw as an actor in the perfect role. I am sure you have heard it said in a dozen other places, but when the history of acting awards is written, this will be the biggest glaring omission ever. This four minute scene is sufficient in itself to have impressed anyone who cares about film acting. It is the go to piece from this film. I have nothing but respect for everyone involved in putting this piece of cinematic art on the big screen for us to enjoy, chew on, and be horrified by. There are however a number of other reasons that this is the ultimate Robert Shaw film role.

Let me start by pointing out that in the first hour of the movie, Shaw's character Quint can be seen only twice. One of those is a passing shot as he looks derisively at the weekend warriors who have shown up to try and catch the shark that Mrs. Kitner has put a bounty on. This comes a few moments after his earlier scene and reminds us of the earnest, self righteous, and totally commanding presence his character promises to be. We are left to wait until half the movie is over to see him again and have that promise fulfilled. The shipboard scene in the harbor lasts a few seconds. The two minutes he gets as an introduction came just before this and sets up our tension as much as the shark attacks do.

Many characters have been given incredible entrances into the stories they are a part of. Omar Sharif appears as a speck against a desert horizon, coming closer and dominating the scene by the time he arrives. Hannibal Lecter is the bogeyman we are warned about and frightened of before we ever see him, but when he is revealed, standing in the middle of a dungeon like cell, with a polite manner and chilling smile, the creep factor is on ten. Darth Vader, strides into the original Star Wars through a cloud of white steam, emerging as a figure of doom clad in black with a voice like a mechanical god. Quint though may take the cake. We know he is there from the terrifying squeal of fingernails dragging across a chalkboard. This may be an experience younger viewers will be unfamiliar with, but anyone who went to school in the 20th Century will know how awful that sound is and will find their own fingers twitching and teeth grimacing as he does what most of us would refrain from doing even if we were being paid. It does the trick though. Quint takes the focus of the town meeting away from the mayor, the police chief, and all the prominent local merchants, and he seizes the moment to make his pitch to the assembled community. He is an Islander, and he does not fit in. He is rough, blunt and cheerily superior in his world to anybody there. Shaw uses a charming grin, to deliver his bitter advice and then makes his exit quickly, like any well trained speaker ought to do. We know another force of nature besides the shark lurks in the waters around Amity, and he will not speak to us again for forty more minutes.

Shaw has three repeating tricks to draw on with this character that he takes full advantage of. In addition to all the best lines and the most interesting character, Shaw gets to punctuate Quint's impact with song on at least three occasions. As he mocks Hooper's technical tools, before they leave port, he engages in a sea shanty that refers to doomed fishermen. He sings it joyfully. It is an indicator of his comfort in his superiority in this scenario. Later, as a gesture of good will to traveling companions that may not be up to his standard but have put in a good days work and broken down some barriers, he sings with them, a well know sailing song, that sounds like the wish of every drunken fisherman. One last time he returns to sing the sea shanty, is when he thinks he has the upper hand on the shark and attempts to draw it into the shallows. It was his last moment of confidence in the film.

The second trick the actor gets to use is all his own, it is unscripted and natural. He wears a hat like no one else can in this movie. Sometimes it is down over his eyes giving him a menacing continence, other times it is pushed back in a nearly jocular manner. The actor conveys superiority, dismissiveness and friendliness all with the same action, but when combined with the right tone of voice or facial expression, you will never be in doubt as to which one is being directed your way. The third trick is a tool that I have seen other actors use, but none so naturally as Shaw. He is nibbling on something or drinking something in nearly every scene. An apple slice, a toothpick, a piece of hard cracker, and a can of beer all tell us the characters inner mind. They say "I'm condescending to speak to you", or "I'm determined and focused", or simply, "I'm better than you". Spielberg is the ultimate actor's director so he probably had a hand in these choices, but Shaw is the man that has to sell them, and he does.

Characters that are well written must be a joy for actors to play, but Shaw may not have had much joy because he apparently was sea sick for much of the shoot. You will not see a sequence in the film though where he does not look at home on the boat or a part of the sea. There were other actors considered for the part before he was given the role, and everyday we need to be thankful that they could just not work it out. As a consequence of their inability to make room for themselves in Jaws, they made room for Robert Shaw in the eternity of great actors meshed with great parts.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Robert Shaw Festival Part 5 The Sting

This is one of the films from the Seventies that did not make my original project because it was not a summer release. It sure feels like one though, it is breezy, clever and gets by with charm and wit galore. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out my favorite that year "The Exorcist". If it ultimately deserves that honor or not is really not relevant to this post. I will say that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you love this movie, because in addition to the qualities I mentioned just now, it has Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and our featured star this week Robert Shaw.

Shaw plays Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster the grifters target in the movie for ordering the killing of their friend. This character is despicable from the moment we see him in a half shadowed profile, giving the ambiguous murder warrant for the two con men who took one of his numbers runners. He is a joyless golfer and a grinding businessman,which makes him a bit hard to crack. The research the con artists dig up suggest that ambition is his only flaw and that he might warm to or at least recognize the ambition of another up and comer. Oh, and he cheats at cards. This gives us the lead to follow for the rest of the story as each segment of the narrative is labeled with a title card, "The Hook", "the Set Up", "the Tale", etc. This willingness to cheat at cards give the scam a way to push Lonnegan into behaviors he would otherwise avoid.

The first pivotal sequence with Shaw is on the train to Chicago, in a high stakes poker game. He is a humorless man, playing a game with others, not for the joy of it but as a mechanic, tweeking the engine of his ambition and taking advantage of others. Shaw plays him as a sour mirthless automaton, seeking only the next chance to take someone himself. The most volatile scene he has comes when he expresses to his underling the frustration that he can't call out Gondorf, Newman's character, for being a better cheat than he is. His instinct is to have him killed, but his pride is what calls him back from the rash act and ultimately means he has taken the bait.

You don't get to the top of the rackets by being stupid, and Lonnegan is suspicious all along the way. The con artists are able to exploit that by using his own suspicions as a way of building up their own credibility. They play loose with a couple of his last minute demands and surprises, and allow him to talk himself into everything they ultimately want. Shaw is cheerless in each false victory that gives him confidence. His curt manner with his new partner, reminds us of why we want this Son of a Bitch to go down. When he demands that Redford's character accept a ride from the train station, if I had been Redford's character, my testicles would have crawled up inside me, and my bladder would feel tight. It is clear from the way the character is written and that Shaw plays him, that this is a venomous snake, best to stay away from but to which he must stick to make the sting work.

It seems like Shaw played more villains than heroes in his career. Most of his facial expressions clarify exactly why, he has a cold eyed look that seems pitiless. His voice is often controlled and low key, with just an edge of menace. He did a fine job in this film, but the star of the movie is first the plot, then the two leads, and finally the surprises. It is often said that a movie is only as good as the bad guy is allowed to be. That makes this a pretty good film. Shaw does not overplay it or draw attention to his work. He is loathsome, but not in the showy manner that so many of today's actors (John Travolta, Gary Oldman) seem to be. The closest he comes is at the end when he is frustrated about the outcome of his gamble, but if you lost a bucket load of money you might raise your voice just a bit too.