Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jerry Goldsmith-A Few Notes

I just finished watching a concert that was a tribute to Jerry Goldsmith and I can think of no finer tribute to make than to say every piece of music played made me want to go and watch those films.There are dozens of film makers that I admire immensely; actors, editors, cinematographers,directors writers and more. The only fan letter I ever wrote however was to a musician/composer that had made me wish I had tried harder with Mrs. Liggett and my piano lessons. I love music as most people do, but I understand very little of the complexities that are required to make a piece of music work. Film music must be especially difficult because it has to match up with a visual reference, enhance that visual but at the same time remain subtle so as not to distract from the screen. Jerry Goldsmith is the film composer that I have enjoyed and admired the most in all the years of my movie going life. I would not want this in any way to detract from my admiration of other great film score composers. All of us who love movies know a dozen composers off the top of our heads that we can say " Yeah, he's the best", or "I love that guy, he's my favorite." I do love them all, but the first composer that I ever listened to separately from the movie was Jerry Goldsmith.

When I was twelve years old, I saw the movie "Patton" and I was convinced it was the best movie ever. In 1970, there was no waiting for the video release of the movie to relive that passion. In those days, unless you had a thirty-five millimeter projector and a friend in the business, you were only going to see the movie again on television. It would be played on one of the three networks (most likely ABC) and it could not be paused, rewound, or scheduled for another time. Things in those days happened in real time. So, how could I get my Patton fix if I had to rely on some future network programmer to run the movie when I wanted. The answer came in the form of an LP. For you younger readers, that is the format before the format that was replaced by the digital format that you listen to music on. The record version of the soundtrack started off with the George C. Scott monologue from the beginning of the movie. I had that speech committed to memory within a short time. It is followed by nearly ninety minutes of the most fantastic music I had ever heard. I knew movie music before this, but mostly just songs from movies, not the scores. The Jerry Goldsmith score for Patton was the first time I paid attention to the background music of a film. I could see the images in my head and feel the emotions swelling in my chest and it was as if I was seeing the movie again. When I watched the Academy Awards that next year, the biggest surprise to me was not that George C. Scott turned down the Oscar, it was that of the eight awards the movie won, the score was not included. What an injustice!

After that introduction to movie scores, I started listening to film music in my Dad's record collection. There were James Bond soundtracks, and some scores from war movies that filled many of my hours at home. As I look back on all the films I had seen before then, I know that I heard the scores but I did not always remember them distinctly from the films. Jerry Goldsmith is the composer that I remembered. The score from "The Omen", was the next time I remember hearing his name, although some of my favorite films of the early seventies were scored by Mr. Goldsmith. It was at that time I started to pay even close attention to the craftsmen that put movies together but did not appear on screen. As a teen, I realized that many excellent people worked behind the scenes and that is where film appreciation begins. My admiration for Jerry Goldsmith's work is what helped elevate my movie watching from pastime to appreciation. I became a more critical consumer of movies because of his work.

Others can comment on the process and technical accomplishment of Jerry Goldsmith's work. I can recognize a music cue, but I could not tell you the key, style or tempo that it is being played in. I do know that his work is what makes some of my favorite movies of all time so much more successful. The Wind and the Lion, Alien and Poltergeist all lead me up to the moment that I officially became a movie geek by writing a fan letter. When I saw "Gremlins" for the first time, I was stunned by how much I loved that movie. What was really gratifying to me was that I could recognize the work of Jerry Goldsmith immediately. I'm not sure how, because I am musically illiterate, but something in that score hit me as his distinct creation. It had a wild exuberance to it, and the joyous mayhem  of the creatures in that movie were matched by a carnival like soundtrack that came across to me as if it were a circus gone wrong. Again, I acquired the soundtrack immediately and listened again and again. My enthusiasm could not be contained and that is when I wrote the one fan letter I ever sent. I never received a response, I sent the letter to the studio, but I also never needed a response. My goal was merely to express my personal gratification at the work that Jerry Goldsmith did for that movie. Those of you who don't know, he is included in a quick shot of the inventor's convention that Mr. Peltzer goes to.

Of course there are dozens of movies that he did in the following years that are also memorable because of his work. There is not much point in listing them all, what you should do is seek them out and listen to the music. I can say that I was present at the Hollywood Bowl for an appearance he made, and then later, there was a tribute concert that he was too ill to come to in person but for which he joined all 18,000 of us on the telephone for. He also composed a very moving piece presented either by the L.A. Philharmonic or the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, commemorating the 9/11 attacks just a few days after they happened. As we come up on the tenth anniversary of that tragedy, I need to make sure to find that piece of music in my collection. There was so much real horror to relive, that I think it will only be tolerable if there is some beauty surrounding it. Thank you Jerry Goldsmith for making movies better but also for making my life better.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fright Night 2011

The original Fright Night is one of my favorite genre films of the 1980s. It featured a fantastic vampire, a terrific vampire hunter and a teen sex comedy combined into a nice tight horror film. If you have been to the movies in the last ten years, you know that 80s films are being strip mined for remakes on a weekly basis. We have had remakes of Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, the Fog,Nightmare on Elm Street and a bucket load more. None of those remakes have been very good. They lacked the inventiveness, suspense and brilliant make up effects that made those 80s movies work so well. Most film makers today think that CG I effects can replace the inventive in camera work that was done on those movies, and they are wrong. There is a prequel to the John Carpenter's "The Thing" coming, and it will be next to impossible to match the crazy practical effects in the original, which leads me to fear a CG I crapfest. So you can easily understand why I would be nervous about a remake of "Fright Night". It turns out I had very little to worry about. This is exactly how you do a remake without desecrating the memory of the original.

To begin with, this version of Fright Night finds a vampire that is an equitable replacement for the original Jerry Dandrige. In the 1985 film, Chris Sarandon created a sensuous, wickedly funny, Lothario as the threat to all the neighborhood women. Behind his smirk lived a sad, lonely hedonist with whom many would be able to identify. Despite the fact that he is evil and the villain, we still like him. Colin Farrell does not try to replicate that. He has some of the same smarmy character traits, but he is more clearly a prick. He barely notices Charlie when first introduced, he is so busy licking his chops over Charlie's mother and girlfriend that he mostly just revers to him as "guy", like in "Hi guy". Later he is so sure of his superiority he does not think through some of the risks he is taking as he fights the vampire fighters. We get a good sense of his smooth ways early in the film but we also see his fierce hunting abilities even before the main story has started. Farrell is perfect as a contemporary "bad boy"who really is bad. Instead of the lounge-wear of his predecessor, this Jerry Dandrige prefers a wife beater t-shirt and jeans. An early and solid joke in the film is that Jerry is a terrible name for a vampire. Well that, and his wardrobe are some of the things that help mask his true nature. Farrell is all coiled menace, with an indifferent attitude toward the threats and the prey that he is confronting.

The second character that is so important to get right in this story is the vampire hunter "Peter Vincent". That name is a tribute to horror actors of the fifties and sixties Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. In the 1985 movie, Peter Vincent was a over the hill actor from those very films, trapped into repeating himself as the host of a late night horror film show. The very best thing about the 1985 movie was Roddy MacDowell's performance as a gone to seed hero, willing to make one more stand for self respect. I remember being outraged that he was neglected in the awards season that year. Sure it was just a summer horror movie, but his work was top shelf and made the whole story click. When I heard that the new movie would make the character a Criss Angel like magician in Las Vegas, I was not sure it was going to work. The script however is clever enough to give some background to the character and make it somewhat believable that a Vegas showman would care about vampires. David Tennant does a good job conveying the douche bag nature of the performer, but also the frightened well read vampire mythologist. Clearly changes had to be made to make the story work in current times, and the switch in this character is necessary and largely successful.

The story remains quite similar to the original, with a couple of good twists. The Las Vegas setting is perfect, because it justifies a lot of the night time activity of our vampire and it allows the real estate developments of the area to serve as a realistic background. Another change that works is the integration of Charlie's mother in the story. It makes more sense than her sleeping through most of the events in the story which is what happened in the original. That beefing up of the part also allows the casting a very strong actress like Toni Collette in this film. She is not the focus of the story but she is a good addition to the cast and the way the story unfolds. One other element that is slightly changed is that Charlie's friend "Evil Ed" has a much better background story, and his part in the film is advanced to a spot significantly earlier in the movie than the first movie. Christopher Mintz-Plasse has appeared in two of my favorite movies of the last three years, Role Models and Kick Ass. He is still young enough that he can play young and that baby face of his helps set up one of the emotional back stories in the movie. He is the friend that gets left behind, the one that Charlie might have helped in more ways than one. The character is nothing like the one from the 1985 movie. In the original, Stephen Geoffreys is a young Jack Nicolson knockoff with a sense of humor and a chip on his shoulder. He was the main comic foil in the movie. That role shifts to the Peter Vincent character in the update, and the Evil Ed character becomes the guilty conscience of our hero. 

There is a good combination of make up and digital special effects to create the monster images in the movie. We saw this in 3-D, which was a little odd since I did not know it was in 3-D until earlier this week. There were some good three dimensional shots that poke at the audience or spray us with blood. They are not necessary but they do not detract from the story and they add a few good moments on the screen. There are two very good scenes that did not exist in the first film and add to this one immensely. Ferrall's vampire is limited by the traditional rules on vampires and he can only enter a house if invited in. This limitation is used in a long suspenseful character segment in which Jerry wants to borrow a six pack of beer. Later, the convention forces the vampire to find a way to drive his prey into the open, and that scene starts a really good action sequence. The sequence includes a frightening shock or two, a very funny visual gag, and a really nice surprise for those fans of the original movie.

I am very happy to report that Fright Night 2011 is a superior horror remake. It equals the original in many ways but it is also it's own film and that is the real joy in a good summer horror film. After you see this, go check out the original if you have never seen it before. I can safely say that both movies should leave fans of real vampires delighted.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'The Help'

The trailer above is focused on a lot of humor and sells this as a light-hearted story of empowerment. Well there is a good deal of humor, the story here is far from light, it is a dramatic imagining of the stories that reflect a culture and attitude that we hope is well in the past. There are dangers nibbling around the main characters, there are civil rights murders in the background, and the choices that everyone is making in the story are often much more somber than would be expected from the marketing. My guess is that readers of the book might be worried by what they see, but if the movie holds as true to the book as I have heard, they should not be afraid to go and embrace this movie.

It is sad but true that the events depicted in the movie take place in my own lifetime. I don't live in a southern town, so I cannot say that the attitudes reflected here by some of the white characters are all in the past, but we can rejoice that much of the official endorsement of those attitudes has been eliminated. The movie is probably perceived as a chick flick because of the dominance of female characters in the story. Why would a guy want to see a movie where there are no featured male leads? The two or three men that do appear are ineffectual and primarily comic in nature. While the reason to see it is that history is not all about men and the wars they have fought. It is about ideas and the changes in the world that they achieve. This story illustrates the reason those changes were needed on a human level. When people speak of racism, the phrases are often bandied about without much definition. Here we get to see what racism is up close and personal. We see how it robs the dignity of the oppressed as well as the oppressors. It is not always hatred of a group that creates racism, but fear of change, uncertainty and the opinion of our peers that create this sort of world to thrive.

The main criticisms of this movie that I have heard and read about are twofold. First, it is suggested that this film is nothing more than a made for TV movie, being shown in theaters. Second, the movie commits the unforgivable mistake of allowing a black story to be told through a white point of view. The first criticism is easy to dismiss because of the production value, photography and performances of the actors. There are many great TV movies made these days that are far better than some of the crap that passes for films made in Hollywood. You don't have to start making those kinds of comparisons though because the polish on this movie lets you know immediately that it is quality. The care in the performances and attention to production details help immerse us into Jackson Mississippi in 1963. If you think that only special effects make a movie theatrical, than maybe there is an argument, but I don't know anyone that sees that as the criteria. The second criticism is more complicated because it is social/political in nature.

I know that film makers from a variety of ethnic groups, have a legitimate complaint that their cultural stories are filtered through a white sensibility. In the last few years many of those film makers have been able to focus on the issues they see as important, without having to cater to the needs of a white audience. If you want a film to be a broad success and to speak to all movie goers, I think you miss a trick by excluding access to the subject by whites. That access should be provided by an appropriate narrative channel and it should not overwhelm the story but supplement it. "The Help" features a white character that initiates the process of writing the book, but it would have to be so in the world of the South in 1963. It would be unrealistic to suggest that the main characters could get their stories out in a widespread manner which would have an impact on the world, from the social positions that they occupy. The white woman journalist is a catalyst, but she does not become the focus of the story. The good, bad and weak white characters are a part of the story. How do you tell the story of oppression without looking at how that oppression occurs? The young journalist played by Emma Stone is not the hero of the piece. She is one cog in the process that allows us to see the true hidden heroes.

Viola Davis is the real star of the movie. She is the moral center of the story and a key player in the events that occur. Her performance is also the kind of thing that tells you this is the star of the movie. It is subtle and honest. There are no histrionics in her speeches No yelling, or over emoting about another character or injustice that she has had to endure. She shows us the face of a woman of courage, one who has been worn down by the world but still has love in her heart, despite the crushing treatment she receives in everyday events. Her eyes convey sadness, her voice humor and her shoulders the weight of too many disappointments. This is an award caliber performance and that is not a piece of tokenism in a white film, it is the legitimate accomplishment of the actress as a professional. Octavia Spencer steals much of the movie as the sharp tongued and vengeful Minny. She proves to be a  desirable friend and a fearsome enemy, and her character is a nice counter point to her friend. She gets most of the laughs in the movie but also earns them with an ernest voice and an expressive face. The great Allison Janney is also wonderful in a two sided role which ultimately helps us see that racial injustice is an affliction for all of us, and not just the population that is put down.

This is not the greatest movie ever made on these subjects, but it is a worthy entry and deserves it's audience.  You should not avoid this movie because it looks like it is social medicine, or that it is a film that uses whites as rescuers of blacks and is therefore demeaning. It is a well told tale of a world that most of today's film audience will be only vaguely familiar with. I admit I was a little hesitant about seeing this because it looked too much like a film that would be good for me rather than good. I am happy to say that it is good, and it did not hurt me to take the medicine because the cure was delightful.

The Captains 2011

This is a documentary that basically consists of William Shatner interviewing the actors that played the part of the Captain in the various Star Trek manifestations. There is actually more to it than that but not in the way of production. Shatner is an interesting guy and he is a little off center. If you ever see an episode of his interview show "Raw Nerve", you will see that he can come at an issue in a very different way. Most interviews are straightforward, asking specific questions about particular topics. That is not captain Kirk's style. He asks questions in a demanding almost metaphysical way. Sometimes it comes across as a bit obstinate, but most of the time he is just trying to get something original from his subjects.

The interviews here are inter-weaved by subject matter rather than performer. Each of the interviewees is given a good amount of time and attention, and the differences in which they relate to Shatner are what make this a more unique experience. Sometimes the transition material wanders around a bit without much focus. Usually we are brought back to the Star Trek universe with a clip from a convention or a short segment from one of the series. I watched all 79 episodes of the original Star Trek, dozens of times over the years. From when I was a kid and Star Trek was a new series, I have always been a fan. The next Generation series was consumed by me as it first unfolded. I saw all the episodes but I don't know them as intimately as I did the Original series. Voyager and Deep Space Nine held my attention for a while, but I did not complete euither series and I have that to look forward to. I have seen only one episode of Enterprise, and I am a little ashamed that I was not more involved in supporting the legacy. From the things all of the subjects said, It was clear there were worthy elements to each permutation of the show.

Much of the interview process is charming and there is a great deal of warmth from the actors toward their legacies and the other actors. You can see from the movie that Shatner and Patrick Stewart have a very warm friendship and a health analytical view of their history. Avery Brooks and William Shatner are just weird together. They are doing jazz infused interview riffing. Sometimes it is uncomfortable but it often ends up as charming and a nice smile will finish a segment. The movie is not for everyone, but if you like Shatner and you love Star Trek, I don't see how you could miss it, or not love it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Here is what you would call a thinking mans science fiction film. There are ideas and themes that are explored but they are done so in the context of an involving story that plays with variations in science. There is drama, humor and suspense and it all ends with a lot of visual fireworks. This is one of the best films of the summer and it was one that I was largely indifferent to until I saw it. Ten years ago, 20th Century Fox tried to revive the "Planet of the Apes" franchise with the Tim Burton "reboot" of the story. While it made money, it failed to inspire further development of the idea and actually ends with a very stupid revision of the first Planet of the Apes final shot. "Rise" does not attempt to mimic the original story and get the same emotional effect which the original films kicker left audiences with. Instead, it does what a "reboot" or "reimagining" of a movie story should do. It takes the idea and runs with it instead of trying to recreate the moments from the original. The idea is the driving force of the story in this movie. That and the relationship story that develops between our human star and the special effect star of the movie.

As usual, I will try to avoid merely recapping the movie for you but there are a couple of story points that I do want to discuss. The story of man's folly in playing with nature is as old as the hills. In science fiction, Frankenstein is the touchstone for this concept. The basics of this story are laid out almost exactly the same as in a summer picture from 1999, "Deep Blue Sea". There we had sharks that develop intelligence, but that movie is mostly about a horror action plot. "Rise" uses the same pursuit of a drug to fight Alzheimer's disease, and turns it into a mediation on what it means to be humane or intelligent. For the first two thirds of the movie we are treated to a story dealing with family and devotion. Both the humans in the family and the chimp Caesar are warm and caring and faced with matters concerning the functioning of the brain. One character is going backwards and one forwards and it puts immense pressure on the scientist at the center of the story to try to do the right thing. James Franco's character does not want to put his father in a home, he sees that as giving up. When he has to put Caesar into a facility, he basically is mirroring the pain and process that he needed to go through with his dad but could not. No one is a clear bad guy in this situation.

We are expected to empathize with Caesar and we get good reason to. His interaction with the family is warm, and his loyalty to the father suffering from Alzheimer's is admirable and sad at the same time. When he ends up separated from them in a facility with other apes, we can sympathize with his plight because we have all been the new kid on the block and we have seen enough prison movies to know how the system can be oppressive. The hardest plot point for me to get by is the rejection of a chance to return to his life with Franco. I guess at this point, we are to understand that Caeser has made an intelligent decision that his mind is more important than his heart. Once the events that lead to an ape uprising begin to unfold, Caeser is still admirable, but our sympathy for him is diminished a bit by some of the emotional baggage. There are some points late in the film where that sympathy needs to be recalled and it does not quite get there. From my point of view the last act is the weakest emotionally in the film.

The revolution of the apes is not as strong as the evolution of Caesar. While the story of Caesar's maturation and growth all seems real and well developed, the follow through with the other apes seems rushed and overly dramatic. That is not to say it is not exciting and frightening because it is both of those things, but it seems to be in a slightly different movie. The original series of films in the 1970s often ended up as cheap ways to bring an audience in and use a brand name as a way of keeping us coming back. "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" was the best of those sequels and it had the most valid themes. This version tries to tell the same story in a different way using very different themes but still covering the same territory. It is far superior in believability to any of the earlier movies, and is only out-shined by the first "Planet of the Apes" due to it's originality and lead character. There are a couple of lines that are mimicked in the current movie from the first. The change in context makes them punch lines for a joke rather than effective homages to the original. The screen writers should have had enough confidence in their material not to go for those two lies. I won' tell you what the lines are but I will say that they are spoken by a human in reverse of the original intent. Tom Felton, the actor who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, gets more opportunity to show his acting ability in this movie than he did in most of the Potter films (Half Blood Prince being his opportunity to shine in that series). He gets stuck doing the two lines and it takes away from the performance.

James Franco is solid, and John Lithgow is excellent as the father making the long goodby. The true star of the movie are the special effects folks and the actor Andy Serkis, whom may become ghettoized in motion capture performances because he is always so good. The setting of the film is San Francisco, and the wild animal sanctuary and the research lab and corporate offices seem like they could be part of the city by the bay. The music is strong but not nearly as distinctive as the Jerry Goldsmith electronic score from more than forty years ago. My minor reservations about the third act aside, this film should go a long way to erasing the memory of the Tim Burton version of the story, and it can easily inspire additional films in the series or stand completely alone. If there are more "Apes" movies to come, I hope they are as intelligent and competently put together as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love

Once upon a time, a movie would be classified as a comedy. or a drama, or a war picture or western. In these days in which a science fiction film is presented as a western or music videos are sliced together to create a drama, it should come as no surprise that a movie largely billed as a comedy would also have the poignancy of a heartwarming drama. There is a history of movies that manage to accomplish both things, "It's a Wonderful Life" is the first example that pops into my head. So many movies today are billed as romantic comedies, when there is either to much romance and not enough comedy (Letters to Juliet) or there is comedy without any romance (Bridesmaids). They sometimes try to force a little bit of one or the other into a film so it will be easier to market to the current film audience. "Crazy Stupid Love" is a romantic drama with comedy elements. You can clear see in the trailer that the emphasis is on the humorous, but the movie actually emphasizes the human. It does rely on some basic film cliches in the story telling but the dialogue, and the acting manage to overcome those weaknesses to make the film work pretty well.

Steve Carrell is cast so often in the roll of schmuck, that he has an edge as an actor from the beginning of the story, we do not need to be convinced that there is something of a loser here. 40 Year old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Get Smart,  Date Night, all create an atmosphere that allows us to accept his character without much work. The question is never is he believable as a sad sack loser, it is whether or not he can be redeemed into something more worthy. His character in this movie is Cal Weaver, a nice enough guy whose wife confesses to cheating on and wants to divorce him. His pitiful circumstances would elicit sympathy for the most part except he goes overboard on the self pity and and he annoys a local Lothario, who responds by trying to make over Cal. Jacob is played by the always excellent Ryan Gosling. He appears to be a man in charge, and maybe he will be able to rescue Cal from his circumstances. Of course, this is a dramatic story, so there is actually more going on and the plot thickens.

The developments that occur as the story goes on will not surprise anyone who has seen a few movies in the last twenty years. Some plot twists are straight out of a Cary Grant movie, while others will be familiar to fans of John Hughes. There are cliches galore in the way the movie is told. For instance, we get a foreshadowing shot of a dropped photograph with Cal and his wife and the glass has shattered to suggest a division between the two of them. Movies like Babel and Crash, have used parallel storytelling that ultimately comes together at the end to reveal connections between characters and their situations. So those kinds of developments are a big part of the film here as well. Most of the convergence is designed for a laugh, but there are a couple of dramatic lines as well and they do a good job at pulling at the heartstrings.  I think we would be better off if we knew more about why Cal's wife succumbed to an office affair, and  even more importantly, why she wants a divorce. Julianne Moore plays Emily as if she were as sad as Cal is. The only real motive I see for her claim that she wants a divorce is guilt over the betrayal of her husband.

This is an ensemble piece, with excellent work done by all of the actors in the movie. John Carrol Nash is a favorite at our house, he has a small role as a friend of the family and he gets two big scenes that provide excellent laughs, one very subtle and the other over the top. Emma Stone is in one of the parallel stories and she is quite charming and beautiful. The kid who plays the son of Cal and Emily is an actor that I was not familiar with, but he has to be solid because the heart of the movie really depends on us believing some of the feelings he has as his parents marriage is crashing and he himself is facing love.  Lisa Lapira steals every scene she is in with Emma Stone, playing her funny and opinionated best friend. Marisa Tomei is also worth a special mention because she is in a small part that develops the plot, and she is so funny in it that the term comedy can be legitimately applied to the movie.

The climax of the movie occurs in the biggest cliche setting of all. As a Speech Teacher, I can tell you that the events that take place here can only happen in a movie. The town would have to be so small and the residents so patient and caring about the family, for this device to really happen. The thing that saves it from itself is the dialogue. If the words coming out of the characters were not compelling and warm and funny, the movie would be groaned off of the screen. We can forgive the ridiculous nature of the event as shown because we are listening to good actors doing lines that we want to hear, despite the fact that the way events unfold is so darn impossible. It is entertaining as all heck, and the characters are real even if the stories are not. We want them to be true because of the actors and their lines. So we will suspend our disbelief and live with the imperfections because so much of the rest of the movie is what we want; intelligent and heartfelt and interesting.