Friday, July 27, 2012


There is so much about this movie that is wrong that it is difficult to say where it goes off the tracks first. SPOILER WARNING: I have consistently refrained from sharing too much information about a movie in my comments. I think when people do that without warning, they are robbing the potential audience of the chance to discover the story and it's surprises along the way. I am going to violate that general prohibition for this movie because frankly, the ending pissed me off and if you have any intention of seeing this regardless of my comments, then you should stop reading now.

OK, Ive decided that the first thing about the film that goes off the tracks is the narration from the female leads point of view. It is so self referential and obviously theatrical in nature that it takes you out of the story immediately. For instance, when she is describing her sexual encounters with the Taylor Kitsch character, she mentions his two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and says she has orgasms but he has wargasms. Clever?, not at all, it is irritating. She proceeds to become the most irritating character in the movie and she is the one that these two guys are supposed to be so in love with that they will go to the ends of the earth for her. There is one vague reference to her background that might have been an attempt to make us have some sympathy for her, but it goes nowhere. Her character's name is Ophelia, "like the bi-polar chick who kills herself in Hamlet". So she goes by "O". Again, this is supposed to be clever? Again it is annoying to no end and with no purpose.

The two male leads characters are Ben and Chon, which gets us a Cheech and Chong joke and an ice cream franchise joke. Yep, that is the quality of writing that goes on in this screenplay. Aaron Johnson, who was so good in "Kick Ass" and "Nowhere Boy", seems to be sleepwalking through this movie. That is really not a comment on the actor and his ability, that is his character. He is supposed to be low key and zen like. When he is moved to fear and rage in late sequences in the film, all the energy from his character has already been drained of any meaning. The only time his character comes off as real is when he pukes. Everything else in the movie is a movie story convention rather than a real person. At least he had something an actor could work with in that scene. Kitsch has one moment early on when he has to use his gun to show his commitment to his new partners. After that, he is an almost zombie like cypher. This is his third film this year and so far, he is on the brink of becoming the next Josh Hartnett, a pretty boy that Hollywood could not turn into a movie star.

Maybe a big part of my disdain for the film comes from the fact that there is no one to root for in the story. The apparent heroes are "nice guy drug pushers". They are only willing to use violence when it is called for. There is a myth for you, the non-violent drug industry. A worldly former Navy Seal and a Biologist/Business grad from "Cal", are not able to foresee that their little business will bring out the worst in people, especially the competition? The screenwriters and director, want us to believe that once it is all legalized, all the cutthroat (literally) business tactic will go away. After all, these people are not really evil monsters trying to make a fortune off of the misery of others. They are just businessmen and women who have to operate in the culture that the drug industry creates. If you think bank robbers and stick up men are only doing these violent crimes because the citizens and police are well armed, then maybe you will believe this. Salma Hayek's drug lord character speaks the truest words in the movie when she points out that "O" doesn't really have focus because frankly, she has been using since the eighth grade.

As movie conventions go, I know why they use Navy SEALs as the bad ass back up for our witless would be drug kingpins. SEALs are bad ass, they are tough and they are smart and able to do amazing things. They are also the best and sharpest and most dedicated of America's warriors. So while it makes it easy for a fictional storyteller to use them as a prop, it defies reality to believe that five or six of America's finest, self sacrificing, patriotic, warriors would become mixed up in the drug business and murder plots that this film plugs them into. The only motivation they might have is their friendship with one of the lead characters, but that is never explored at all. There are things in this movie that I don't doubt are real, but this plot point is ridiculous.

The movie starts off with a video recording of a Mexican Drug cartel execution of several victims. They are tied up and then tortured and decapitated (thankfully off screen). Later we get to see their heads being played with like soccer balls by the enforcers for the cartel. This is the start of all the gruesomeness in the movie. There are later scenes of murder with a sadistic gleeful bent to it, and continuing threats to family members including children. I know that the drug cartels are capable of horrifying violence to keep their hold over the market and their vassals. Showing this violence without making it mean something, other than "we are evil" seems cruel. There is a disgusting torture scene late in the film which would fit into one of the modern "torture porn" horror films easily. I've avoided all the "Saw" and "Hostel" and "Vacancy" type films because that type of horror turns my stomach but not my fear. Pretty much the same thing happens here, I was repulsed, but since I felt that way earlier, I don't think it did anything to make the film more compelling.

This movie is mostly a nasty piece of business without anyone to care about. All of the characters are unpleasant, most of the time the unpleasantness is shown on screen, and never do we feel like someone is thinking enough to make the story more compelling. The only one-ups-man ship we get is more violence, not something creative. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie, when the inevitable violence escalated out of hand, and everyone dies, it turns out to be a dream by our annoying female lead. Again, "O", shows us why we should not care about her. The film makers go with a "what really happened" storyline where one character goes to prison, but everyone else gets out alive and thrives as a result. Including the most reprehensible character in the movie. Benicio Del Toro's enforcer "Lado", ends up happy and contented, John Travolta's corrupt DEA agent is a hypocritical hero (a political crutch if ever there was one) and the menage-a-trios of our leads have sex in a tropical paradise until they decide if they want back in. Oliver Stone has re-imagined his great screenplay for "Scarface", but in this one, everyone lives happily ever after.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises on a Dark Day

A year ago I went to what I expect to be the last Midnight Screening of my life. We saw the finish to the Harry Potter Series and my wife and I came to the conclusion that although we loved being a part of an experience like that, we were getting to the point in our lives where midnight movies were just a bit more than we can chew on. That is the reason that we were not at a screening last night. We did go out and purchase tickets for an AM show. I was at the box office last night at 10:30 or so, and the crowds were beginning to swell. People were in line, friends were joking with each other. I heard a car drive by and the music from "The Dark Knight" was blaring out the windows as another set of fans was arriving at the theater. Everyone seemed prepped for a wonderful time. When we got home, the local news stations were checking in at theaters in the area, interviewing fans, promoting tomorrows reviews and appearances by film makers to talk about the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman saga. While we were not going to see the movie for another twelve hours, all was right with the world and one of the highlights of our summer movie season had arrived.

Cut to this morning and the the alarm on the radio went off. I got up and went in the bathroom and listened to Mark and Brian. I was up early despite the fact that I did not work today, because I wanted to hear them talking about the movie. Their show is just a month away from ending and I am going to soak up as much as I can get until then. It was there that I heard first of the news that a dozen people had been killed at a midnight screening of  "the Dark Knight Rises". I quickly turned on the cable news channels and local news shows to see what was going on. There were the horrifying images, taken from a phone camera, of people exiting the theater in shock. Some of the people I saw were covered in blood. I don't know if they were wounded or if it was from someone who had fallen near them. The information scrolls were rolling out data, 12 dead, 38 wounded, gunman captured, booby trapped apartment. It was a nightmare come to life. We live hundreds of miles away from the Colorado town where these events took place, but it always feels so close when something like this happens. Everyone knows someone in high school, even if they did not go to Columbine. Everyone knows someone in college, even though they were not students at Virgina Tech. Everyone goes to the movies, even if they don't go out at midnight to see first screenings. Right now there are families in pain, when they should have been sharing pleasure. I can't imagine how someone will get through losing a child, a parent or a friend in a situation like this. My heart goes out to all those families that have been touched by this tragedy.

As a film lover, and a consumer of Hollywood Pop culture, I also feel personally attacked. My sense of  outrage and frustration cannot begin to compare to those things that families in Aurora Colorado are feeling. In addition to those who died, at least 71 others are shot, many in critical condition. The survivors will have long term medical issues, financial issues and emotional issues to sort out. I don't carry that burden, but I will always carry a sense of violation and a pall of sadness when I think about my movie going experience from today. Yes, we went ahead and saw the movie as planned. The theater was close to full for a 10:45 a.m. show. The crowd was excited, but I also got a sense of quiet as we settled into our seats. While watching the film, I remembered one of the witnesses saying that the shooting stared during a scene where "Catwoman" is a part of a shootout in an bar and alley. As I watched that sequence, I found my mind drawn to a visualization of the surprise and terror that must have faced a similar audience in Colorado just ten hours earlier. I hated that I was taken out of the movie for those few minutes because that is one of the things I have always loved about going to a movie, the sense of being transported away from your daily life into another story.

I have every intention of writing a full review of the movie for my blog here in a couple of days. I am enthusiastic about the film, but I am not focused on it right now. Trying to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of "The Dark Knight Rises", at this very moment is not something I want to do. I did want to say that I saw the film, but that the experience is somewhat tainted by the events of the last few hours. I am absolutely not afraid of going to a movie theater. The sudden violence by a lone crazed person is such a random act, that to refrain from seeing movies due to it would be the equivalent of not going out of doors because lightning may strike or a tornado could come by. It is opening day, for what may be the most widely anticipated movie of the summer if not the year. Maybe there will be box office records, maybe the film will be award-worthy, maybe some will be disappointed, and others thrilled. In my mind though, maybe we should just wait a while to talk about those things. Maybe, I'll have a clearer head and more focused mind then. Maybe then, the excitement of the movie will outweigh the sadness that I feel right now.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Katy Perry - Part Of Me

So my daughter is a huge Katy Perry fan, and she saw this last weekend when it opened. She of course loved it but I was a little uncertain how I would feel about it. It is only partially a concert film, much of the content focuses on Katy Perry's musical history and personal story. While I enjoy her music, I have largely tried to steer clear of the kind of tabloid fodder that her life became when she was married to Russel Brand. The tour that is featured here is the one she was doing as her marriage began and then collapsed. It seemed likely that this movie would focus on the very public failure of a personal relationship. There is a good amount devoted to that subject, but for the most part it is not told through the breathless gossip of Hollywood tabloid TV and Print Journalism. As a result, although it did go places that I think probably would be better left private, it was still an insightful and largely honest portrait of a pop phenomena. He mainstream career is only a few years old and she is only 27, so maybe it is premature to have a life retrospective. On the other hand she is of the moment.
I love theatricality, after all KISS is my favorite band. So Katy Perry fits in with my sensibility even though her music is not the kind that I would put on for my own enjoyment. She has developed a motif for this tour at least, that basically comes down to ice cream and cotton candy dreams. The stage for the show looks like Willy Wonka threw up and all the sweets he made were jumbled together to make a life size version of Candyland. The outlandish costumes and dance sequences are show to good effect. It is a solid primer on the things you would expect from a Katy Perry concert. Like many rock documentaries, there is a lot of attention given to the fans. Sometimes it is embarrassing the lengths that her fans will go to to get some attention. At other times the devoted are also charming and sweet as they meet their idol and get a chance for a brief time to bask in her glory. The background on her life and career made the movie more interesting to me. Had it just been concert footage, I don't think it would merit much attention from non-fans. I guess contemorarey artists will never be stuck for historical material because video is so ubiquitous, even thirteen year old girls with guitars and dreams of a music career will have hours of images that can be used to put together a journal. It is a little weird to imagine that someone so young would already be be recording their career for posterity, but her it was. I doubt that Ms. Perry would be offended if I point out that she clearly has a need to be "the Star". There was a series of talking head comments from friends, co-workers and family that tell her story from Christian singer, to failed angry girl star to the person she really seems to be. Listening to the frustration she went through with the two record companies that just did not know what to do with her was sad. I imagined the careers of all those who could not get out of the music business machine and got chewed up. The ridiculous producing team that pompously calls itself "The Matrix", may have been able to turn non talents like Britney Spears and Avril Levine into product, but someone with a vision of their own was clearly beyond their grasp. It is a good incident to point out that Katy Perry is a real talent and not just a manufactured product.

When the problems with her marriage to Brand come up, none of it focuses on confrontation or personal acrimony. We barely have any idea about the issues that resulted in their split except for the demands of the tour on her time and Brand's lack of availability to her. There were two or three painful emotional moments which showed that this was a real relationship and a real person was being hurt. I found some of the people on her tour a bit less sympathetic because of their instance on a "show must go on attitude". In the long run, Perry shows that she is a real pro and one that can find some inner strength to be able to not disappoint fans. The sections that deal with this were quite poignant.

We saw it in 3D and it was perfectly fine. The giant squirt gun and bubble machines used in the concerts, provide a little bit of extra production value for the 3D, but mostly it is the "Pop" of the stage itself and Perry's outgoing persona that made it worth the investment. If you are not already a fan, you are likely to find much that is admirable in this pumped up commercial for a music celebrity. If you are a fan, you most certainly will want to see this, especially if you have not been able to make a show. I like Katy Perry and I like her movie too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Turner Classic Movies Presents Singin' in the Rain 60th Anniversary Event

So, we went to the event and there were several high points and low points. Everything about the film was wonderful, but several issues with the venue are worth mentioning so that the promoters and the theater chain can fix these the next time. Let me start with the positives. There is basically no way to offer criticism of a classic like "Singin' in the Rain". It is pretty much perfect and it has been so for the sixty years that it has existed. If you ever read someone disparaging this movie, know that they are simply taking a position to get some attention. This movie is the pinnacle of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. I know that more musicals won Academy Awards for Best Picture in the 1960s than in any other decade, but all of those were adaptions of Broadway shows. Singin' in the Rain was a home grown creation of studio talent, and dancing genius, combined with the most impressive casting you can expect in factory town like Hollywood and MGM were in 1951/52. As I watched the movie on the big screen, I was even more impressed with some of it's accomplishments. An early musical number, "Fit as a Fiddle", features Gene Kelly and Donald O'Conner is a dancing duet that is so seamless as to be impossible. When they skate past each other as their legs cross and their feet slip into the next space, you have to ask how they managed to synchronize those movements so effectively. It defies logic but it must have taken hundreds of hours of set up, rehearsal and filming to make it look as great as it does. And, this is really a through away sketch that has little to do with the main story. Still, they lavished such attention to detail in getting it right that you know there were true creative professionals at work here.

There are a dozen other amazing dance sequences to match this one. Kelly and O'Conner again in the "Mose's supposes" bit, and then "Good Morning" with Debbie Reynolds.  The ballet "Lullaby of Broadway" with Cyd Charisse is amazing. There is a complicated sequence with a forty or fifty foot bridal wedding veil, which must have been so carefully planned and choreographed that today you would need a computer to figure out all the angles and directions the wind would have to travel in. They did it without the aid of such technology and it looks beautiful. Of course there is also Donald O'Conner's comic"Make Em Laugh" sequence that combines true dancing skills with athletic acrobatic moves to bring down the house. The cheery on top of all the other treats is Kelly strolling through the rain in a backlot version of Hollywood, soaked to the skin but singing his heart out. It also gives us one of the most iconic images of Hollywood movie making in the first century of the art. Kelly, standing on a lamppost with his arms and heart outstretched for all of us to see and weep with joy for being a part of.

When I saw "Singin' in the Rain" as a kid, the first time was on the afternoon movie. Local stations played films between the soap operas which ended around two or three in the afternoon and their news programs which did not usually start until five or six. In order to fit the time slots, the movies were often carved up. I knew the movie, but I never saw the "Broadway Rhythm Ballet" sequence until "That's Entertainment", because the film got cut up by the local broadcasters. In the late seventies, there were two stations that started playing the old movies complete with limited commercials and that is when I saw the film all the way though, complete for the first time. My best friend Art Franz and I became enamored of the MGM musicals after the appearance of  "That's Entertainment" in 1974. The contemporary movies were great, but I see no need to dismiss the work of brilliant entertainers from two decades earlier simply because they worked under a different set of rules. I have encountered way too many people who dismiss old movies because they lack the grit and realism of many later eras. Those folks are missing out on the shared community that films produced in the U.S before the advent of nightly television. Maybe, the films were a bit sunny, but I never look at a sunny day and ask for gloom to show up and spoil it.

Debbie Reynolds was only 18 when she made "Singin' in the Rain". There was a great clip of her talking about the movie with TCM's Robert Osbourne, right before the movie started. She told some great stories and admitted that she was scared and had to work really hard to keep up with Gene Kelly's high standards. The song and dance number "Good Morning" is performed by all three stars, but it is really the chance that Debbie Reynolds gets to stand out as a real film star. Her charm and personality more than make up for whatever dancing talent she lacked, although I dare you to find any weakness in her dancing in this sequence.  She keeps step with both of the more accomplished stars and does so while being the center of the action. It is also a very complicated dance involving a stair case and furniture.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont got a laugh every time she opened her mouth. She was perfect for the role of the silent romantic screen star with a voice that would make Fran Drescher seem pleasant. When she gets uppity with the studio head and becomes a real villain to Reynolds character, we take enormous pleasure when she is knocked back down to earth. There is a wonderful sequence where a dialect coach tries to help her develop a more appropriate way of speaking, and she simply cannot hear any difference from the coaches words to her own. It reminds me of my own difficulties when trying to say foreign words. I know I'm saying them the exact way I hear them, but nobody else ever seems to agree.

The theater was packed. There was not a seat to be had and I saw several people simply standing in the back of the theater to watch the movie. This was a sixty year old film, being screened on a Thursday night. While there were a lot of older folks there, I was pleased to see a large number of movie lovers in their twenties and thirties at the screening. There were also at least two dozen kids dragged to the movie by their parents who sat in awe and laughed and clapped when everyone else did as well. It was a true family night out at the movies.

The Not So Good

Fathom events is the company that arranges these programs. We saw all three Lord Of the Rings pictures last year and Casablanca, earlier this year at Fathom events. The theater chain is AMC, and they are usually reliable, but something was off with last night's program. It may be that the unusual humidity here in Southern California threw off the system, but the air conditioning was not working and the theater felt stifling. This is not what you want in a summer screening at a modern facility. Also, AMC should have known that they were going to have a crowd since so many of the people who come to these things buy their tickets on-line. As a result, they should have been able to figure out that more than two registers needed to be opened at the concession stand for a seventeen screen complex with at least one film completely booked up.  I also cannot remember a time when a concession stand, ran out of popcorn. Popcorn is the life blood of an exhibitors cash stream. Asking people to wait so that you can make more, after they have already waited ten to fifteen minutes in overcrowded lines is a bad idea. Finally, I know that the program is a single day and therefore your automated system will need to be adjusted. That however does not excuse having the houselights stay on for the first ten minutes of the movie. Even worse however was the fact that everyone had to find their way out of the theater in the dark because the houselights did not come on at the end of the movie. Watching two to three hundred people, many of whom are older, stumble around by the light from dozens of cell phones was not a pretty picture.

Despite the fact that I went without popcorn, and skipped the Coke Zero as well as a result, we still had a wonderful time, thanks to Stanley Donnen, Gene Kelly, Arthur Freed, Donald O'Conner, Debbie Reynolds, and a cast and crew of thousands who made one of the most enduring and endearing films about Hollywood ever.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


After a two week hiatus from movie theaters, I managed to get back into the swing of things so to speak with "The Amazing Spider-Man". This is the kind of big budget, action packed, popcorn film that seems custom made for Summer Vacation and the Fourth of July Weekend especially. I had the chance to see it in a small town theater in Wyoming, but I was simply to pooped out to make it to the one screen theater with the children of my friends. So, after getting back from a long excursion, we ventured out to a Sunday screening, ready to chow down on popcorn and super hero daring do. For the most part it is a successful film that I think will be pleasing to fans of the super hero genre. I am a little less certain that it will have as much acceptance outside of that fan base because frankly, half the movie feels like a repeat.

It was just ten years ago that the first cinematic version of Spider-man hit the big screen. Sam Rami's three films run the range from disappointing to spectacular. The second film stands for me as one of the great comic movies of all time. Both Spider-man and X-Men peaked with the second films in their series. The third film in each series as well as Superman and the first cycle of the Batman movies turned in disappointing results. It makes me fret just a little about the upcoming "Dark Knight Rises". I suspect that Christopher Nolan can break this jinx, and I hope that they don't try to reboot the series too soon. That is my main criticism with the new "Spider-Man". In order to relaunch with a new lead, they have decided to make it an "origin" story.

For the first hour, there is a lot of familiar material. Peter Parker , exceptionally well cast with Andrew Garfield taking over for Toby Maguire, lives with his Aunt and Uncle, is an outsider at school but with a very scientific mind. He gets a "magic" spider bite and develops amazing powers that allow him to joyfully test them in front of our eyes. He begins using those powers to avenge the murder of an important figure in his life and learns that there is a need for taking responsibility. There are only a couple of items that distinguish this origin story from it's predecessor. First, Peter and his parents are given a back-story that connects them scientifically to the corporation that figures so prominently in this character's Universe. I thought that there needed to be a little more pay off in this story of that string. If you stay two minutes into the end credits, you will get a stinger that promises more, assuming a sequel ends up being made. The movie is long, so it may not hold up as well if it gets weighed down with too many sub-plots.

The second point that makes the origin story a little more worthy is that the great Martin Sheen and Sally Field play Peter's Uncle and Aunt. They are a little younger than we had in the first story and that makes their contributions a little more vigorous. Aunt May will be a stronger character in any sequel but Sally Field did justice to what was written here. Sheen gets most of the juice in the early part of the movie. He is wonderful. The way the part has been re-done however, means that his plot-line is not quite as poignant as the Cliff Robertson role ten years ago. The aftermath of his story feels rushed so that we can get to the main adventure in the movie. Also, we just went through this emotional resolution ten years ago so it does not feel as fresh.

I have made it abundantly clear in the past that I am not a slave to the comic books. I have no fault with them but fans that treat the comics as the bible for a film rather than the launching point of a film, don't understand the difference between the two medium. I don't know the story of Gwen Stacey and how important it is in the comics versus the Mary Jane character. Emma Stone is the hot young actress of the moment and she is very effective in the part, but it never developed the epic nature of a romance the way the story had in the earlier films. There was just enough of her character in the story to make her presence important, but some of the coincidences start to pile up and even for a comic based film begin to feel a little contrived. She appears to be the Nexus point for events in the movie for no particular reason except to save time.

The villain also has some back story that was nicely introduced but again felt incomplete. The genetic research makes a lot of sense for both Spider-Man's story and The Lizard. The actor Rhys Ifans does a nice job conveying a tragic history and moments of regret, the one spot that seems least convincing is that of bad guy and most of that performance is CGI. The dramatic section of his story is rushed because we took so long to get there in the first place. I did think that the fight scenes with Spidey and the Lizard were done very well and carried a good amount of surprise and suspense. Most of Spider-Man's special effects look sharper than in the earlier movies, and the color palate hides the cartoony nature of the character in the effects shots pretty well. There were a couple of good #D shots but nothing that demands that you see the movie in 3D.

Now that the series has a new lead and background, I think that future episodes will work more effectively because they will not have the shadow of the three films from the first decade of the new century hanging over them. There are enough changes her that loyal film followers of Spider-man will want to see it. There may not be enough that is new for everyone else and I expect that viewers will be happy but not elated with the results.