Sunday, September 30, 2012


When I saw the trailer for this film and that Bruce Willis was in it, I assumed it was simply another in a long line of fall action pictures that he has been in for the last few years; "Surrogates" and "Red" come to mind. They are enjoyable pictures and sometimes have something going for them, but the expectations are not really great. It did not bode well that it would be Joesph Gordon-Levitt's third or fourth film of the summer. Sometimes an actor gets hot and then the market gets over-saturated with product that has been around but was not on the front burner for the studio (Jennifer Lawrence in "House at the End of the Street"). So while I expected to see this, and liked the idea of a science fiction action film with Bruce Willis, I did not highly anticipate it. I was not looking for blogs that discussed it, I did not seek out clips that would shed light on the story, and this weekend, I did not read any reviews of the movie. For that I am truly grateful. This is a film where a minimal amount of information is needed before seeing it and anything more would spoil it. If you are planning on seeing this, stop reading now and come back after you are done and we can compare notes. I won't be giving up any plot points but by necessity, I will have to reveal a couple of tonal changes that occur in the movie and you should not be sitting there waiting for them.

This may be my favorite film of the year so far. It was intricately plotted, well acted, brought to life in a coherent manner and made me want to see it again immediately. The title of the film gives away some of the issues the story is concerned with. Are we in a perpetual loop of inevitable history or can we change it? Every Science Fiction film that has used time travel as a theme is ultimately faced with these kinds of questions. The first time I remember seeing this used as a plot point was a "Twilight Zone" episode with Russell Johnson (The Professor from Gilligan's Island) in a story attempting to stop the assassination of Lincoln. It has been used for serious dark stories like the "Terminator" series and for light comedy in the "Back to the Future" trilogy. "Looper" is concerned with both the possibilities of changing the past to alter the future and the morality of taking any action that may potentially alter the future. From the start of the movie and in the trailer, we learn that Time Travel is being used for criminal purposes of the worst kind. The limits that have been placed on the technology make it perfect for a particular kind of murder and apparently not much else. This is a plot issue that jumps up immediately and if you can accept the premise than the story should work. If you start exploring other possibilities and seeing the holes in the set up, everything else is going to fall flat. Fortunately, the fast pace of the story at the beginning steam rolls us along and before you know it you believe the circumstances.

Without going through all the characters and plot points, I want to point out how well the film works as an entertainment. So many movies these days are cookie cutter versions of a story that there is not much suspense and certainly no surprise in the outcome. I often feel like a product on an assembly line, waiting for the next standard piece to be added. Many film makers have attempted to maneuver around this by placing surprise twists into stories where the twists are either not really surprising or are simply implausible. "Looper" manages to constantly throw in another element or plot point that makes us reconsider our position as an audience repeatedly. It does this without resorting to cheats which have no connection to the story as set up. The movie it most reminded me of is not "Inception" which I can imagine many will compare it to, but "Memento"; interestingly both of those films came from Christopher Nolan and one of them featured the star of this movie. It is not that the writer/director Rian Johnson is stealing from Nolan, it is simply that the emotional depth of the characters as revealed by the passage of time is so similar. I thought "Inception" and "Shutter Island" were basically the same plot and starred the same actor. This movie feels distinctive and smart, without becoming overly enamored of the lead character.

Stories in movies need compelling characters to motivate us to watch. Usually we like the heroic but sometimes we will live with an antihero. Straight villains as lead characters have worked but in my opinion only in rare cases. "Sin City", another Willis film, is an example of a movie I disliked because not a single character felt worthwhile to me. At first I was afraid that was what was going to happen here. "Joe" the main character, is a murdering drug addict who only cares for himself and the criminal life he has acquired. We are not given any interesting back story, he does not possess a personality that we can latch on to (like any of the irredeemable but interesting characters in a Tarantino film). His life is on a downward, nihilistic spiral that no one would want to watch for two hours, regardless of the action in the movie. We get a brief summary of that life in a montage of events that sets up the older Joe's function in the film. It is with the introduction of the older version of Joe, that the character starts to develop into something we can care about. Our point of view about the two versions of Joe, shifts from loyalty and admiration towards one and then back again. The story is about redemption and what a person is willing to do to gain that redemption. It gets a lot darker than a science fiction film might be expected to do.

Midway through the film, there are some dramatic shifts in the story and the focus of the film changes in very noticeable ways. As I was watching, I almost felt as if I was watching a reel from another movie, accidentally inserted into this film. Of course it does start to connect all the threads of the story together and bring back into focus some of the ideas that were presented in the early part of the film. New characters appear, and there is a reason for their presence. They add a personable dimension to the movie and at the same time begin to bring in the real issues that the story is grappling with. In the long run the story is not about the survival of the two versions of Joe, but rather it becomes about which version of the redemption story is going to prevail. I liked the questions the movie wants us to ask ourselves and I like the solution that we get as the future is being revealed to us. All of this might sound a bit mysterious if you are reading this before seeing the film. I know that might be frustrating so let me get to the hard stuff that everyone can appreciate.

The action in the movie is well staged and easy to follow. The actors do a fine job selling the character they are playing at the point they are supposed to be playing them. There are some good science fiction elements that do not strain credulity but actually feel as if this might be a world toward which we are slipping. The technology is not over the top and mostly exists to service story points, sometimes it is not even referred to or explained. The two leads are excellent and it is definitely Joseph Gordon-Levitt's movie, but Bruce Willis has his best dramatic role in years and he runs with it. There is a quality in his version of Joe that reminded me of his lost soul in "Twelve Monkeys". He is still a tough guy, but the certainty of his moral position is never entirely clear. There is quite a bit of violence to go with the ideas and it is often brutal. When we see how the crime lord in the present manages to get an escaped looper from the future back in line, it is horrifying and brilliantly realized. I think I need to see it again to make sure I really saw everything I think the movie put into my head. It may be that my mind was working out things so much that I just created my own justification for the movie. Of course I don't think that is a bad thing.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

How the James Bond Theme Was Born

With so much James Bond stuff coining out on line right now it may be impossible to keep up with it all. When I find something to add to the celebration of 50 Years and the Release of Skyfall, I'm going to add it to the Bond Festival here on the Kirkham A Movie A Day site.

I don't know that everything being said here is right, there have been a number of stories over the years but it sound pretty accurate, even if it is being delivered in a somewhat pompus way by one reporter and frivolously by the other.

Friday, September 28, 2012


A couple of my students had recommended this movie to me in the last few weeks. I'd seen the trailer and it did seem like it would be something that I would be interested in. For some reason it slipped by and I had almost forgotten about it. This morning we actually headed to the theater in the hopes of catching up on a horror film that had been out even longer than "Lawless" had bee. The listed screening tome turned out to be 9:30 pm instead of am, and so Amanda and I were faced with a choice of what to do. We considered a couple of other films but this was starting the soonest so in we went. It's probably not the best way to make a decision about what to see but it happens occasionally.

This is a southern fried gangster movie about moonshiners and the corrupt state police that want to take their bite in the bad old days of Prohibition. Once in a while the city gangsters show up as well so there is plenty of rivalry and tension in the story. The art direction, cinematography, and costuming all sell the time period very effectively. As you look at the streets of the small towns, you see the different signs for products of the times, the cars look like they belong to the period and the way the actors are dressed, suggests every photograph I've seen of my grandparents back in the 1920s and 30s. The moon-shining business in the film is supposed to be set in Virgina, but all the big city folks are gangsters and lawmen out of Chicago so it did not always make geographic sense. The film is based on a book that is written by the one of the descendants of the three brothers featured in the story, so I suppose there is some truth in it, although the usual dose of Hollywood hyperbole is detectable in the marketing phrase "Based on a True Story".

The oldest brother in the family of moon-shining bootleggers is played by Tom Hardy. He is is on the brink of being one of the biggest stars in the world. Earlier this year he was the villain "Bane" in "The Dark Knight Rises", but even better he appeared as the damaged marine in last years fantastic "Warrior". His acting talent is not utilized in big strokes in this movie. Half of his performance depends on a gravely voiced southern accent which is used to utter half words such as might actually be said by someone of his status in life. He nails the dead eyed look and mumble pretty well. The other half of his performance however seems to come from the cardigan sweater he wears in the whole movie. He looks like a bulky grumpy grandad rather than a bad ass. At least up to the moment when the brass knuckles he has hidden in his pocket end up in the mouth of someone who crosses him. There are only a couple of scenes where his explosive persona comes out and gives the viewer the emotional outcome we are looking for. The climax of the picture renders him less imposing than other characters that the story is really more focused on.

If you read movie blogs of any type, you will almost certainly have encountered the hate that Shia LeBeouf has generated over the last few years. Despite being featured in the three "Transformers" movies, which have made a ton of money as well as appearing in a number of other successful film, he appears to be an irritant to a number of film goers. It may have started with the less than successful story in the last "Indiana Jones" film. There was a lot to criticize there and he was responsible in at least the on screen segments of the story that most fans find cringe worthy. In my view he has simply been a young actor who is trying to grow in his craft, sometimes failing because of weak material of poor casting. He has however been good in several movies and I would count this one among those. As the youngest brother of the hill country clan of distillers, he is a mix of eager puppy and screw up. The character is written for someone just like LeBeouf, wanting to be more than he is, preening when he makes his mark and believable when he makes a mistake. The match between actor and role is a good fit and the film succeeds in large part because of his presence.

There are some very good performances from other actors in the movie as well but none of them draws attention to the acting with one exception which I will discuss in a moment. Jessica Chastain, who was in two wildly different movies last year, one I loved and the other I loathed, is stuck in a thankless role as the eye candy that generates some emotion from the older brother but her character is just underdone. She has the part of the sexy temptress but I thought she was out-shined by the demur and luminous Mia Wasikowska. Her part is even less well developed but she has just the right look and smile to sell the character of a slightly rebellious Mennonite preacher's daughter. The performance that draws the most attention to itself is Guy Pearce as the corrupt D.A. enforcer Charlie Rakes. He chews a little scenery, but the biggest part of his performance is a legacy again of the costume and make up departments. Like Hardy's sweater, Pearce's hair cut and lack of eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting for the role. He is creepy without having to know much about him.

Gary Oldman is in the movie but other than two scenes, one of them a memorable costarring performance with a machine gun, you would not recall he is part of the story. The machine gun does remind me that this is a very violent film. None of it is the cartoon violence of "Dredd". This movie violence feels threatening and like it is a daily part of the lives of all the characters. Some of it is shown but thankfully the most brutal parts are mostly hinted at. I was glad not to see the castration and rape scenes that tell you just how depraved some of the characters are. You know that the danger was real and that's about as far as we need to go with it.

The music was authentic sounding with some tunes featuring Emmy Lou Harris and the final song performed by Willie Nelson. Much of the music reminded me of the southern inflected gospel music of "Oh Brother Where Art Thou". The story arc is pretty straight forward and the main point of the movie is the maturation of the central character of the Shia LeBeouf. That might keep away the haters but if you like a hard boiled gangster picture with some good performances and solid action, I think "Lawless" is worth the effort.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


If this is what you are looking for than this is what you are looking for. It meets all your expectations and satisfies the violence quotient you are jonesing for. There is a definite edge to the film that was lacking in the first big screen version of the story. Not being a fan of the comic that it is based on, I can't say how faithful they were to the story but it sure feels like the tone of the movie is in line with the no nonsense visualization that comes up here. The plot is straightforward, there are only a couple of twists and they occur within the confines of the story and don't scream "Hey we need to punch this up a bit".

Karl Urban plays the title character and it is a interesting performance because he never takes his helmet off. The Judges in  Mega city are all uniformed with armor and a head piece that hides the top half of their faces. It is never clear to me what the advantage of this is, but it was clear that Judge Dredd takes all of this very seriously. Since Urban has to perform with half a face, he needs to got the tone of the Judge right and make it work through action scenes and dialog. I thought he nailed it. There are not one liners or quips that make this character interesting, but his reaction and vocal tone speak volumes. He never plays a line for laughs, but there is sometimes a slight smirk and a odd pause that tells you the Judge just make a funny. Most of the time his world weary sigh is enough to tell you that the business end of his gun is about to do the rest of his speaking.

The only element of the movie that seemed like it might be a movie made plot point involves the rookie Judge that Dredd is evaluating. In the toxic irradiated world in which the story takes place, it appears that there are mutations. Most of these are not seen and when they are referred to, it is with a disparaging description of their lack of arms or legs. Judge Anderson however appears to have psychic abilities that raise her value despite a low set of  test scores. The psychic element also gives the female co-star the opportunity to skip wearing her helmet since it could interfere with her talent. In truth, this simply gives the actress, Olivia Thirby, the ability to play her part with a complete face. It's one thing to have a bunch of faceless hoods being dispatched in overwhelming numbers, but the audience needs some emotional connection to the main characters and if both of them remain anonymous that would be tough. The psychic ability plot line proves useful and it was not overly used but there were a couple of places where the rules regarding how it works were a bit inconsistent.

I have not been able to catch up with a movie out earlier this year, "Raid Redemption". I have heard that it has a very similar plot to this film and that there is also a lot of imaginative violence that drives it as an entertainment. I expect it will be right up my alley because the current film clearly was. Hundreds of gang members in a massive building are trying to wipe out the two judges. There is some technical mumbo jumbo used to make the battle remain between the gang and the judges without any outside assistance for the most part. This was another plot loophole toward the end of the film, and one of the twists that comes up, while not exactly a cheat, feels a little too pat. Still, this two against hundreds saga is filled with small scenarios that hold our attention. There is a nice use of the psychic skills to escape one situation, a technical trick to fix another, and finally there is the willingness of the minions to act recklessly, which allows our judges to be so efficient in dispensing justice.  In one extremely long outburst of violence, hundreds of bystanders are slaughtered in a pretty mechanical way. I appreciated that the glorification of violence was usually reserved for the wicked as they got their comeuppance.  If you are clearly as bad a person as I am, and take joy in the violent retribution that the criminal behavior brings, then you will want to see this in 3D. The viscera comes flying off the screen and splatters (metaphorically)  on the audience in abundance. It is shameful and base to take such delight in violent images such as these. So of course I loved the movie. Let's face it, this is an entertainment that derives its purpose from exploiting the violence.

There have been other violent soaked orgies of cinema excess that I have not enjoyed despite their bloody visage. "Sin City" comes to mind. I am also unwilling to endure what some have called "torture porn". Movies in which the innocent are mutilated as often as the guilty, are harder for me to justify to my own sensibility. I need to care about someone in the movie for there to be a value to the vengeance. I cared about the two judges. The rookie represents an innocent who is looking for a life purpose in a world that otherwise has no use for her, and the veteran Dredd, is the silent figure of justice that is as close to an ideal as one can come to in the world created by the film. He goes by the rules and follows the code. Those that cross the line do so at their peril. It's nice to think that someone so single minded and violent is on the side of justice rather than a criminal. In many ways he is "Robocop" without the cyborg trappings, and "Robocop" is one of my favorite cinematic heroes. All you need to know going into this is whether the premise appeals to you. If it does, if violent action in pursuit of "justice" is your kind of movie, than get to a theater because this is your kind of movie. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

James Bond Countdown to Skyfall Part 1

I've been reading a blog site lately that I enjoy immensely. You can find Fog's Movie Reviews on the links to the right of these posts. Dan appears to be as big a Bond fan as I am although I have the years on him to make a case for my preeminence. Over the last year he has had a series of posts on the 007 films, ranking them as CLASSIC, CHEESE, or CRAP. We've disagreed on a few of them but more often than not he sees things the way I do. I thought that in celebration of the upcoming release of Skyfall, the next James Bond adventure in a fifty year screen career, I'd do some Bond posts as well.

The original Movie A Day project featured three posts on Bond films from the seventies. I also did a Robert Shaw film festival and posted on From Russia with Love. Finally, another blogger that I follow closely, has been posting his reviews of the movies in his collection alphabetically (My Movies My Words, also on the right hand set of links) and when he wrote about Goldfinger, well I had to get in on the action. One of the great things about the internet is that I have been able to find others who share my passion for films, especially the films featuring the greatest gentleman spy in all literature.

In an attempt to do something a bit different, I decided I would do a ranking of the James Bond films myself, but with a slight twist. I'm going to rank the films of each actor who has portrayed Bond separately from the other actor's films. Then at the end of the process, I may attempt some other ranking games and offer anyone interested an opportunity to participate in some on-line polling of films, actors, villains, gadgets, theme songs and Bond Girls. This seems pretty ambitious to me, but I hope to keep myself occupied and engaged while waiting for November 9th.  Anyone who knows a Bond fan should send them to these posts so that they can play along.

We'll begin with the actor's who have portrayed Bond the least and move to those who had the good fortune to be 007 for seven films each

George Lazenby

This is easy because Lazenby only played 007 in one film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", so his best effort and his worst are represented in one movie.

Lazenby gets a bad rap from most Bond fans, because he was an amateurish actor in his first role, but even more importantly, it appears to most fans that he was indifferent to being  007. He made it easy for the producers to find reasons to dump him and he acted as if he was happy to walk away from the role. The truth in my opinion is that he was a moderately successful replacement for Connery, and had he had a chance to grow in the part he might have been a big star and made some great Bond films.

The role of James Bond in OHMSS is maybe the most complex personal story of any Bond plot. Frustrated at his lack of support in his search for Blofeld and the remains of SPECTRE, he actually tries to resign and it only the intervention of Moneypenny that keeps him on the job. He has made contact with a woman that fits his personal profile for attractiveness. Bond has always been a sucker for a wounded bird that he can protect and nurture. Tracy presents him with a personal challenge rather than a professional one, and that is one of the changes in the tone of the film that I think most Bond fans dislike. Ultimately the two paths do cross and Tracy is embroiled in the spy game mostly by accident.

When I first saw OHMSS as a kid, I noticed how the fight sequences seemed to have been sped up ever so slightly. I'm sure the purpose was to make the fights seem more energetic, but I thought it was one of the weaknesses of the film. It takes you out of the reality of the situation and reminds you of the film making. Lazenby gets some great opportunities to flirt with a dozen women at Blofeld's mountain top fortress, but he can't pull of the sly innuendo and Double entendré the way Connery could. Just about everyone else in the film is a better actor than the lead and that makes his flaws more noticable, but not necessarily fatal.

There are some strengths in this film that should be listed. To begin, Diana Rigg was a better actress than any of the previous Bond girls and she had a better part to perform in. The primary setting in the Alps, is a spectacular change from the other exotic locales that had been used before. Skiing becomes a skill that Bond uses many times after this in his film adventures, but this movie set the standard for good chase sequences in the snow. I liked the tension in the scene where Bond breaks into a solicitors office in Switzerland, has a photocopier delivered to him and escapes with a centerfold just before the lawyer returns. The safecracking equipment and photocopier that were needed in this film are the basis of the problem Bond was faced with. The equipment was large, it had to be smuggled in and it had to be sophisticated. In later films Bond would have a wristwatch or cell phone with the same capabilities. Those tools are cool but then you don't get the realistic suspense that we had in this scene.

The other weaknesses in the film include a lack of a great title song. The Louis Armstrong song in the film is nice. It uses a line that I choke up on because it was something I used in the memorial service for my best friend, "We have all the time in the world". Of course we never do and at the end of the movie the tone of the song is much more somber. The end of OHMSS is also a downer, another thing that people object to.  I do love the opening music but there isn't a song to go with it so it is not as memorable as it could be.

It does include on of the best one liners in the series, it takes you out of the movie for a second but it is worth it.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

House at the End of the Street

This was the lowest rated film opening this week on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm not sure why it is getting such low scores. It may be that the other movies opening this week at driving down the opinions on this film, or it may be that the haters think that since it is a PG 13 horror film, it has to suck. It was not at the top of my list to see either, but in the long run it would be unwise to think of this too much as a horror film. It has some horror elements and those were played up in the advertising, but for the most part it is a suspense thriller with another variation on on old theme.

Jennifer Lawrence is hot right now (OK she's just hot). After starring in an Academy Award nominated performance and having the lead in the newest breakout film series on the planet, she will be in demand and can have her pick of films for the next few years. I suspect she took this job before the potential fame banner was wrapped around her. It is a simple film that focuses primarily on characters and story. If you have a good enough story, the actors that have been cast will bring it home for you and Lawrence and her co-stars do bring it home. So if the movie is less than satisfying, people must have a problem with the screenplay. I'll get to that in a minute.

The two leads are young and appealing. Their romance is believable and it is not a problem that the star is attracted to the odd loner. Max Thierot looks familiar to me but I have not checked to see what else I might have seen him in. He has a hangdog expression and a winning manner. It comes over very reasonably that the sensitive new girl in town would be attracted to him. She sings a sweet song and he drops the information that he heard her singing it in a casual way. He seems so milquetoast at first that you might wonder if he really is the second lead. Lawrence plays a smart girl, and the part does not have some of the flaws of other movies of this ilk. She picks up on signals, and notices things that any of us would see in daily life. She is not a passive victim, but a clever and resourceful protagonist. No one is going to be screaming at her to not go in the house based on what her character has seen.

The other actors I thought carried off the script as well as they could. Elizabeth Shue, as the less than perfect but still very protective mother was well cast and hit the right notes. Once upon a time she would have been playing Lawrence's part so it was not difficult to see them as a parent and child at odds over their awkward relationship. Gil Bellows is an actor I remember from TV and he plays the slightly too low key police officer who comes into the lives of these three people. At times you suspect he may have something to do with the goings on, but his likability factor is high most of the time. As the voice of reason, he ends up being memorable in a fairly slight part.

OK, the story is next. We have seen endless variations of slasher movies and creepy house films, so the fact there there is not as much suspense as there should be is less the fault of the movie than of the audience. We are in on it from the beginning. If you saw a trailer for the film, you know a couple of the plot twists that might have been more fun if we did not see them coming a mile away. The story takes it's time coming to the suspense elements, and I was almost hooked on the sympathetic Norman Bates vibe. The problem is that there are double twists and they confuse some revelations and they are not as well developed as they should be. I did think there was an effective use of flashbacks, but there are still unanswered elements of the plot that bug me a little at the end. The big climax in the house fulfills it's connect the dots vision, but makes the story less believable because of how a couple of things play out (Mom takes a knife and this is what happens?) The movie was competent, and the story for the most part is a nice turn on an old stool, but in the long run, the movie fails because it is not what you think it is going in. It is a well made, moderately budgeted suspense film with no real blood or on screen gore. The film makers tell a story, it's just a bit too familiar and the unique elements are not enough to lift it past adequacy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

White Line Fever

This is one of those movies that should have been on the original Movie A Day Project. I had more than a hundred films listed and I simply started with the ones that were on my shelf at the time. As the summer went along that year and the project progressed, I started looking for copies of the movies on my list and ordered them or found them in local retail outlets. There were several movies that were not available anywhere that I looked and so they got bumped from the project. A couple of things could be rented on i-tunes and a couple had been uploaded to YouTube, but White Line Fever was one that escaped me. About a year back I saw that it was available as a disc on demand on the Warner Brothers site. These discs are bare bone films in the best available format the studio has. Sometimes the prints have flaws or the sound and color are not as sharp as they might be, but the movies don't have enough cache to demand re-mastering and a major release. With internet streaming they may end up being made available without any packaging or modification at all. I still like physical media, and collecting a library that someone can see when they come to the house is fun. I finally sprang for the DVD on demand and it came yesterday so I could not wait.

 The 1970's were an interesting time to live through. International conflicts, political upheaval, changing social mores, they had them all. Fads have come and gone for centuries and I can't say that the 70s invented them, but when it came to social trends and movies, the 1970s may have had the greatest number of inexplicable cultural fads of any decade. Buried in the middle of the decade was an obsession with the "Trucking" lifestyle. The CB radio became ubiquitous, and there were TV shows, movies and hit songs that all featured truckers. "White Line Fever" is a relic of that time period, Truckers were the modern day cowboy, riding the ranges in their eighteen wheelers and living the truly free lifestyle that so many of us envied. With the oil shortages and government regulations at the time, there were regular protests by truckers of injustices that they saw. "White Line Fever" played out many of the themes of those times, abuse by public officials, manipulation by power crazed distributors and financial hardships created by the cost of buying gas. For the most part, it is a very traditional story of one man fighting against the system. It's not quite "On the Waterfront" but the general objective is the same, the difference is the means by which it is achieved.
This is the old Alhambra Theater. I saw many of the seventies based movies I write about at this theater. The Facade in the picture shows it as the Twin Theaters but in the decade before, it was divided as the Alhambra and the Gold theaters. The main house had a huge auditorium that could accommodate maybe 800 audience members. This is where I first saw the film with my friend Mark Witt. It may have been one of the last movies we went to together because soon after graduation, he and his family moved to a farm community in Central California. Mark and his brother Dick, were in my Scout troop and they were farm boys trapped in suburbia. The trucker aspect of the movie would have appealed to Mark, because if he wasn't going to be a farmer, he'd have been a trucker. I know I saw this movie several times and at least one of those times was in the smaller Gold Theater at this complex, if had seats for maybe 200. The ceiling in that theater was very low and the feeling was cramped compared to the spacious cavern of the main house. I had two or three circles of friends, and it is interesting to me that although my best friend Art, worked at the Alhambra Theater, he and Mark never socialized with me at the same time.

The movie stars Jan Michael Vincent, who spent most of the 1970s on the cusp of big stardom but for some reason never seemed to make it to the next level. His later life was a mixture of personal problems and professional dead ends. In this movie he plays a headstrong, independent young man who wants to make his way in life as a long haul trucker. He is supported by his hard working wife but she worries that the job will keep them apart. For much of the film, that is not an issue because he can't get a job hauling anything. He once worked for his father in the trucking business and they shared some basic values, including knowing what is legal and right. His unwillingness to move contraband along with the legitimate products is the reason he is blackballed by the local trucking collective. It is hard to imagine that a guy could get away at one point with hijacking a job at gunpoint, but that is a plot point in this film and it kind of makes sense. There are several other actors of note in the film. Kay Lenz plays his wife and she was on TV and small movies all the time in the 1970s and 80s. Her biggest role was in the mini series Rich Man, Poor Man and she also appeared in another of the Movie A Day Projects "The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday". She is still working and appears in television programs on a regular basis. Her character here is nearly as head strong as Vincent's is. They made a very believable on screen couple. The great Slim Pickins is in this movie, but it is one of the few performances I've seen him in where he does not seem to be putting much energy into it. He will be better remembered for his work in 1975 in Blazing Saddles than this. He does however get a pretty effective death scene and it was disturbing enough to me to be able to recall it vividly before I watched this again for the first time in thirty plus years. L.Q. Jones is in the movie as well. L.Q. was a buddy of Strother Martin, the actor who was my Mother's cousin. I always keep an eye out for him in movies because he is a connection to those days. I was told recently that he had died but that turned out to be premature and the woman I know who is writing about Strother, has had some contact with him. He is especially slimey in this film, they gave him a pair of black leather pants to wear and he looks like some nasty peckerwood who is trying to be something bigger than he really is.

An exploitation film like this really thrives on a couple of things, either gratuitous nudity (none here) or spurts of violence (several set pieces here). There is an nice action scene where our hero climbs on top of his big rig and has a shotgun shootout with the bad guys. Most of the violence was basic fisticuffs rather than gunplay or martial arts. The fights are well staged but often feel like there is not much resolution because the antagonists will be dukking it out again in a later scene. The climax of the picture is a well lit night time truck stunt that looks pretty spectacular but it is not clear in the story how it would resolve anything. The idea that the truckers can come together to fight against the corruption they are faced with is a solid one, but the cartel that controls their business seems to be more cartoon like than is needed. In the long run, the story is only moderately satisfying, but the theme and road images made the picture memorable. There is some casual use of racial epithets, and I know I heard people speak that way and not think twice about it in those days. Today such language would be an anathema for most of us. I'm glad to check this one off of the list and it was great to revisit it, even if it was not a great film.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bait 3D

Sometimes I have to question my sanity, or at least my common sense. This movie is out on DVD/Blu Ray on Tuesday, and it is playing in very limited release this week only. So why can't I wait a couple of days and just buy it and watch it as often as I want? The answer is simple, as much as I love the whole concept of watching movies at home, there is no substitute for seeing a film in a theater, on a big screen, with an audience. Unfortunately for the producers of this film, my audience consisted of only five people. I know that the screenings are not really designed to bring in the cash, because they are basically just advertising for the Video, but this would be a lot more fun with a crowd of screaming teen girls, their hipper than thou dates, and a bunch of other thrill seekers looking for an opportunity to jump up and yell, "Hell Yeah". My daughter and I love the cheesy horror elements and a shark in the water will bring her to the most awful movie because Jaws is her favorite film. So, on a Sunday morning, we drove almost fifty miles across the county, to the harbor area in L.A., and took in a screening of "Bait" in 3D.

I'd seen this promoted on a Facebook page and I liked it months ago. The site directs you to another site Called Tugg, where apparently, if you get enough requests in an area, the company arranges a screening.  I'm not sure if this was a Tugg event, after all, the film is playing all week and not just for one night. It is an interesting concept, and I saw that another blogger I follow, attended a Tugg event for "The Princess Bride".  I'll have to keep my eyes open on this because I am really interested in seeing older films that I have missed, or genre crap that will not get a general release, up on the big screen. So, enough background, the real question is, "How was the movie?"

The concept is an interesting mash up of a disaster picture, with a shark thriller/horror film layered on top.  A group of people with mixed motives and relationships, gets stranded after a natural disaster in a grocery store/parking garage, and they are being stalked by great white sharks. It sound pretty silly, and it is, but when you see how it all set up it makes more sense. Sometimes people are separated and they have to get from one spot to another before the sharks can get to them, other times there is a deliberate attempt to move from one spot to another to achieve a short term goal. Let's face it, watching eight or nine people sit on a shelf for two hours is not going to make a very good movie. The sharks have reason to be antsy and the people are given reasons to test their ability to outwit and out swim the sharks.

There are plenty of odd inconsistencies in the storytelling. At one point the survivors are struggling to come up with a rag or towel to create a bandage or tourniquet. Five minutes later, they have assembled a portable shark cage, complete with underwater breathing tools. Of course it doesn't make any sense but it does give them something to do and the audience some reason to hope for both success and failure. A movie like this, requires that there be some failures so we can get the gruesome, violent payoff we have been promised by the scenario. From the beginning of the movie, the audience knows that blood is going to be spilled, the only question is whether it will be in a style that is visually arresting, shocking, and emotionally or morally satisfying. For the most part the film lives up to it's promises. While it is nearly an exploitation picture, it turns out that it has dramatic pretensions as well. Unlike the two "Piranha" films in the last couple of years, there is no gratuitous nudity. Unlike "Shark Night" of last year, there is no stupid horror film style subplot. What we got was a pretty standard disaster drama, with some bloody special effects scenes built in.

The actors here are all competent and deliver their lines with some sense of reality. I did not recognize most of them, but Amanda said that one of the girls is in "Vampire Diaries", so they are not an inexperienced cast. The one guy I did recognize is Julian McMahon. He was Dr. Doom in the "Fantastic Four" films, and he played the psychotic candidate in the movie "Red" last year. He has an interesting face and demeanor, and was cast as a conflicted heavy in this film. The two young sets of actors, playing the star crossed lovers and bickering romantic partners all seemed to be the right age and were as convincing as the set up would allow anyone to be. There is no surprise in who ultimately gets killed and who makes it out into the light of day. The only elements of surprise  concerned how the shark deaths would look on film. There are two really effective and grisly deaths, two other deaths that have a little bit of payback satisfaction, and hundreds of deaths that occur within a short sequence.

I did feel a bit of moral guilt watching a group of survivors, and rooting for some and not others, shortly after thousands of mostly faceless others were killed. It is the nature of a disaster picture however to present us with that type of scenario.  Most of the deaths occur in a quick and non-exploitative manner. There were however a couple that seemed to feed the feel of the picture as a cheap action picture. If the movie had been more outright nuts, then maybe those sequences could be laughed off, I just thought they were a little too "cinematic" for a film that is trying to be a real drama. That said, the guy dangling from a rope who gets bitten in half by a leaping shark was pretty gruesome cool. The movie is not over the top crap like Piranha 3DD, but it did have a feel for exploitative action entertainment. It was a satisfying morning, and if you are looking for a low budget drama with some horrifying action, this is your ticket. If you want cheap ass thrills, wait for all the crappy horror films that are about to hit, or best of all, dip into the "Piranha" films. Bait has it's moments, but it is actually too solid a movie for it's own good.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Arclight Poster Wall

Last night we went to a screening of Logan's Run at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood. The film was in the Cinerama Dome, which is a stand alone structure right next to the main Arclight facility. The lobby of the theater complex is spacious, and there is a coffee bar, gift store, and a restaurant. There are two levels of theaters that you can purchase your tickets for at the  box office. Immediately behind the box office is my dream room come to life, take a look at this:

These are full sized movie posters, each in a light box, attached to the wall, stretching upwards of fifty feet into the highest part of the lobby.There are at least ninety posters here, although I can plainly see that there is one two part poster advertising "Ishtar" so maybe there are only eighty-nine movies.  By my count, I'd seen about fifty eight of of the films that appear here. Unfortunately, I only own four or five of the posters on display. I want them all but even more than that, I want a ceiling at least fifty feet high and thirty feet wide so that I can do this at home. I'm so jealous.

Update: In celebration of the Upcoming Clint Eastwood Baseball Movie, the Arclight updated their film poster wall with Sports Themed Posters. Take a look:
Here is an update based on the comment below. This is the La Jolla location not Hollywood but it is still awesome.

Logan's Run

Two years ago, this film was on my original "Movie A Day" project. It fit the criteria to a tee; a 1970s Summer film. So it is a little odd that I am writing about it for the first time today. The reason is that, "Logan's Run" was one of the films my guest blogger wrote about while I was in Alaska. My daughter Amanda did a nice write up but is actually somewhat critical of the film and it's 1970s trappings. My perspective is informed by two substantial differences; first of all, I actually saw the film the first time in theaters in 1976 and second, my current post is based on a viewing last night on a full sized screen rather than a video of the film. I really like the vast majority of the film. The story is a wonderful example of the Science Fiction concept films I was drawn to, and frankly, the cheesy costumes and set designs are like a ticket to my past (even though they are supposed to represent the future). Last night Amanda and I took in a screening of "The Sexist Movie Ever" , it was playing on the original big screen that I had seen it on thirty-six years ago.
If you have not been to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, you do not really understand why this is such a great experience. The building itself is a geodesic dome based on the work of Buckminster Fuller. From the interior, you can see how the pieces are fitted together as you look up at the ceiling. When the Arclight Theater Chain proposed a new film complex at the location, there was a huge hue and cry from preservationists because the iconic structure was threatened. Most historical theaters were built in the 1920s and 30s. The Cinerama Dome is a relic of the 1960s, which is not usually seen as an architectural watershed period. Anyway, the preservationists won out and "The Dome" has remained as a single , separate screen at the Arclight complex. To me, the greatest element of this preservation is inside the dome. Originally designed to show true "Cinerama" films using a three projector process, the screen in the dome is extremely large (much bigger than the FauxMAX screen I saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" on Friday). The screen is also slightly curved, so it has the effect of enveloping the audience in the movie experience. This has a very dramatic effect in a couple of scenes in "Logan's Run", and there are many films that I remember seeing here that were probably better simply because of the theater.

 The audience at last night's screening was amused at several pieces of dialogue and acting that are admittedly a little clunky. Some of the laughter was derisive but it seemed to me that at times it was also a bit warm for the more innocent film making period. "Logan's Run" was a big budget, Hollywood Science Fiction film that came out a year before the movie that would change the way Science Fiction would be visualized forever. All of the money was spent on set design rather than on special effects. The sets are garish renditions of the future that largely use shopping mall architecture to suggest a world of youthful hedonism. The characters frequently end up chasing each other in "the Arcade", which looks like a mall from the 1970s with some funky specialized stores. Neon lights and mirrors are the mainstays of the designers for this movie. Futurist travel between locations consists of sitting in a capsule that then moves thru a tube to a well lit station with some chrome fittings. The most well developed visuals in the film are the miniatures used to show the domed cities of the future and the layout of the structures in each of the domes. The serendipity of watching a movie based in a domed city, while in a domed movie theater, was not lost on me. Unfortunately, the static manner in which the miniatures are shot, emphasizes too often that they are just models. There is something about water that makes the model work in most pre-Star Wars movies look artificial. A second element that really dates the movie is the costuming. When the film is once referred to in a popular TV show as "The sexiest movie ever...", they must have been thinking of the way the characters barely dressed. Jenny Agutter, was a beautiful young actress, and basically she wore a sheer piece of fabric tied around her waist.
Most of the other women's costumes are also fairly revealing. Michael York is lounging in his apartment in a black and silver caftan which looks like it could have come straight out of a fashion magazine layout from 1973. Everyone has layered 1970s hair style, Farrah Fawcett Majors appears in the movie, and she has the hair style that would basically define the late seventies. The one thing about the costuming that works is the color scheme which is designed to identify the characters "life" status.

 So, far I have been talking about the things in the film that don't work all that well. It is time to get to the stuff that makes this worthy of your attention. Set in a future where wars have ravaged the planet, the ecological balance of the world is kept by strictly regulating the size of the population. Breeding is done in incubators and death comes a a predetermined moment. This allows the society to use the resources it has to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle for only the thirty years that are allowed. All of this seems to be largely a mechanical function, there is no political structure or power elite. The only aspect of a "government" that is detectable, are the "Sandmen" who isolate violent behavior and track down and destroy anyone who tries to avoid their deadline. Philosophical issues are answered by the ritual of "Carousel", the promise that by accepting death, the people have a chance at renewal, to come back for another life.
Inside the trappings of a splashy, comic book looking film, is a nice nugget of an idea. Would a tradeoff of unlimited pleasure and indulgence, justify a limitation on your life. We are supposed to empathize with the "runners", but aren't they really seeking to have their cake and eat it too? What would it do to the society if everybody was not required to play by the rules? Is the ritual of "renewal" through "Carousel" just a false promise, a metaphor for all religion? What is the purpose of life if it is to end so quickly? The futurist citizens in this world are not too removed from the "Eloi" of H.G. Wells Time Machine. They are provided for but what is their purpose?. Sometimes I look at the world we actually live in and I see some of the same kinds of questions. It might be a little hypocritical to write on a movie blog that we may be amusing ourselves to death, but many of today's indulgences are not too far away from the creepy Brave New World visions of the future found in movies like this. "Logan" and "Jessica" first contact each other on "the circuit", a device that transports you to a willing sex partner for a brief period of pleasure. There are a whole bunch of dating web sites out there that pretty much do the same thing. Why would our view of this behavior condemn it as vacuous when we see it in 1976, but be acceptable to us in 2012?

 OK, enough with the philosophizing, back to the movie. The opening set piece of "Carousel" is one of the most successful components of the film. The visual of a crowd cheering on the deaths of their fellow citizens bears a striking resemblance to the Roman Coliseum. The masks, turn their fellow citizens into faceless bodies that they can cheer for without the remorse of knowing which exploding body was their friend. The unitards and robes add to the sense of ritual as does the dramatic music, provided again by the great Jerry Goldsmith. The bodies rising off the ground, spinning uncontrollably and then exploding is a great visual for this ominous story. Sitting in the Cinerama Dome, with the screen looming over and nearly surrounding you, it almost feels like you are in the stands for ritual. There are some clever visuals to suggest the future which were not all that cheap looking and don't feel dated. Logan's apartment is pure 70's modern, that is true, but when his fellow Sandman, Francis 7, comes in the door with two giggling women ready for sex, and he throws a bulb filled with some sensuous enhancing gas against the ceiling, that feel futuristic. The laser surgery sequence is not far off from the way many modern surgeries are performed except the equipment is not as intimidating as the device used here in the film. The sequence in Prometheus earlier this summer is a grandchild of this sequence. (I also saw it in the James Bond film, "Die Another Day"). This movie was rated PG in 1976, it has themes of sexual perversity, there is an orgy shop with writhing naked bodies, and then the refrigerator is full of nude extras as well. We get two gratuitous nude sequences with our leading lady, and a lot of people also die. This movie came eight years before the PG-13 rating was created. At my wife's school, the general guideline is that they can show the kids a PG rated film without having a parent's permission. I think this movie might be an exception.
"The Sexiest Movie Ever", is probably not safe for the sixth grade. Just as an aside on the event, while waiting for Amanda after the film was over, I saw Ted Rami standing in the lobby. Maybe not a celebrity sighting that the rest of you would enjoy, but I liked that "cowardly Warrior" from Army of Darkness, just went to the same movie I did. Only in Hollywood.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark - IMAX

There is not really any point in reviewing a film like this. Everyone knows how special it is and everyone has already seen it. So what is the point of posting on this, simple, I get to share my joy with others. (Oh, and I get to lord it over all of you who did not get a chance to experience this in the IMAX format). In the interests of full disclosure, I actually saw this today in one of AMC FauxMAX theaters. The sound and projection are amazing, and the screen is oversized, but it is not the seven to ten stories that I think a true IMAX theater should be. The problem was that our window was limited. The promotional posters go to the first five hundred at each theater, and Amanda, my daughter and frequent movie companion could only go to an A.M. screening today. So we swallowed our reservations and went to see a fantastic piece of cinema that remains for many, the high point of Steven Spielberg's career.

All of this is of course a week long commercial for the release of the Blu ray DVD next week. Last month there was a single screening of Jaws in Orange County in celebration of it's release on Blu Ray, and it irritates the hell out of me that I missed it. "Raiders" on the other hand will be on the IMAX screens all week, and next Saturday, they are playing all four Indiana Jones movies in a one day marathon. I don't think I will be able to make that, but believe me the Box set will be coming home that next week.

The movie looks terrific. I can't say what all the technical issues were that the studio addressed, but I don't think the movie ever looked as good as it did today. For those of you who may not realize it, I actually saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in it's original theatrical run, so although my memory is not perfect, at least I have a basis for making a comparison. The images were sharp and the colors clean and consistent. There was only one minor glitch that I noticed, that was some out of focus work on Satipo, the character played by Alfred Molina. When the spiders are discovered crawling all over him, there was a bit of blurring and loss of focus for just a few seconds. This might have been a technical issue in our screening, but I will be looking for it on the disc when it comes out.

Harrison Ford looked so incredibly young and rugged in the film today. Tom Selleck might have been fine, but the movie really thrives because of Ford's charisma. Karen Allen was so perfect in the tough girl, with glamorous potential role, it is great to remember that she was in many other terrific films as well. We re-watched "Animal House" the other day and she is so cute and sweet in that. John Rhys-Davies is actually very svelte in this film, it wasn't until "The Last Crusade" that he started playing "bigger"roles. The music from "Raiders" is among the many masterpieces of John Williams. Listening to it today, I was reminded how it was so powerfully evocative that it was used everywhere in the next few years. That sound was a touchstone for many and it set a template for action adventure films to follow. There are some truly beautiful passages as well as the swelling march that everyone recalls so clearly.

With the picture as sharp as it was, there were several places where my eye was drawn to set decoration that had whizzed past me before. At Indiana's house, as he and Marcus are discussing the upcoming endeavor, you can see at least three fantastic art deco style lamps in the living room. I was a Lawry's in Las Vegas on August 2, and I took this picture of the lamp on the mantle in the lobby:
This looks like they took it from the Indy set and set it down in the waiting area. It is the same lamp.

In the cabin on the boat that Marion and Indy are taking to get the Ark out of Egypt, there are several other beautiful pieces as well. Every detail of the movie was very vivid. Even during action scenes, the clarity of the picture enhanced the experience. I actually see the bullet wound and explosion in the forehead of one of Toht's Nepalese henchmen. There were times I saw the movie before this, where I had only imagined what it must look like, here it was in goriuous red.

I will probably be traveling back again this weekend to visit all of these characters on the big screen one more time. When the girls were maybe nine and eleven, we took them down to the New Beverly in the Fairfax area of L.A., to see a double feature of Raiders and The Last Crusade. It was one of the experiences they both recall vividly from their childhoods. I can't imagine that anyone out there would want to deny their child a seminal moment like this. So get yourselves out there and enjoy. Marion says it best for me, "Indiana Jones, I always knew someday you'd come walking back through my door."

Monday, September 3, 2012


Here is a nice summer kids movie that swings right up my street, knocks on the door and says "Hey can I come in?" My answer will be of course "yes". This little guy features stop motion animation, a kid obsessed with horror films, and an off center point of view. Oh, add on top of that it uses the great Donovan hit from the 1960s, "Season of the Witch". I'm in with my heart if not always my head. The wordplay in the title is just the kind of joke I need to put me in one more spot up on the must see list. Unfortunately, I've been so busy the last couple of weeks, I'm only just now getting around to it and some of you may already be on to something else. That's OK, I'm going to give you my fix still.

To begin with, this is not really a film for little kids. There is some pretty gruesome stuff going on here. I heard a lot of comments around me today from 5, 6, and 7 year olds, that seemed strange. One little guy said, "Zombies don't really kill you, they just eat your brains." Another tyke was asking her mother if you were a ghost, could you hurt someone or did you have to be a zombie. I know kids grow up faster these days but this is not really a film for anyone under eight or nine. I have not checked but it should at least be rated PG. There is a plot point that involves a group adults actually killing a little girl, we don't see it on screen but it is a key element of the plot. How are you going to explain that kind of stuff to the little guys? Give em a couple of years and it will be fine.

The look of the stop motion figures is classically odd. Let's face it, stop motion looks different from traditional animation for a clear reason. There is a look and feel to these characters that is very different from a classically drawn image. I liked the way that the adults were shown, warts and all and the kids have there negative aspects as well. Giving Mom a little pot belly is not the usual way these things go in animation. The colors of the film are dark and luminous at the same time. There is a sense that the images are glowing green, even in those spots where they are not. The plotline features ghouls and ghosts, many of which do not look like they are Scooby Doo friendly, they look more "Night of the Living Dead" gross. I found that the story spun out of control a couple of times. Just as it is established that our hero can see the dead, that plot thread disappears except for motivation of the story. We don't really encounter any dead people after the goal of the hero has been set up. Once the curse that Norman is supposed to be fighting against begins, everyone can see all of the zombies and ghosts. There was clearly a family connection to this gift but it was barely developed. Norman is charged with his quest by a crazy Uncle, but that element of the story goes away and we don't get much of a fix on how the Uncle fit into the earlier generations family dynamic. If it is going to be mentioned, it should be part of the story, but it just is, without reason for being there. We meet the dead grandma and the live father, and neither of them talks about the Uncle much, especially after he expires. I did like some other characters that get brought into the story. Norman's unwanted friend Neil and his brother, tag along with Norman and his sister on a journey to discover the burial spot of the "Witch". The hysteria with all the towns people gets a little overwrought as does the parallel to earlier times.

The plot pulls it all together eventually, but it felt a little ragged to me. There are a couple of weird sex related references, and that's another issue for the little kids. None of it was explicit, but it was a little out of place. The resolution of the story was fine and there is a nice moral to the story. We did not see it in 3D but it looked as if there were some good visual gags that would make it 3D friendly. It was much like "Coraline" from a couple of years ago, well planned visuals, a good idea for a story but a little weak on putting the narrative together. A solid film, but not quite the complete treasure that many parts of it are.