Sunday, March 31, 2013

G.I. Joe Retaliation

I saw the first G.I Joe Movie a couple of years ago. I guess it was before I started the blog because I don't have a review posted. I do remember telling several people that it was "craptacular". It was loud, stupid, confusing and entertaining enough to fill a Saturday matinee and allow me to kill a bucket of butter popcorn. The sequel is just about the same. It is not a good movie but it is a good time. If you see it in 3D, it doesn't make it 3 times as good but it does make it more interesting and gives you some extra value for the effort that you made. Several scenes seem to have been planned with the express purpose of making cheesy use of stuff flying off the screen. Let's face it, this is a movie, based on a cartoon that was based on a toy line that was promoted on television. It has a lot pushing against it to begin with, if it manages to be enjoyable at all, that is something of an accomplishment.

My memory of G.I. Joe is completely different from all of the stuff that makes up this storyline. Check out this commercial from the toy line when I was growing up:

Somewhere in the early 1980s, the action figures got smaller, and the toy line got bigger. I remembered hearing speeches about how inappropriate it was that toy lines were creating cartoons that would serve as long form commercials for their products. "Transformers", "My Little Pony", "He-Man" and "G.I.Joe" were all cited as examples of this phenomena. It appears to have taken root in the consciousness of kids from that decade because they are now nostalgically returning to their youth and sharing it with their own kids. So now the commercials are not half hour television cartoons badly animated, but two hour motion pictures, almost animated and badly written. The cartoon like villains  in this movie put it in the same category as the "Transformers" films, they are action-fantasy films, and you can buy the toy. I still don't know why there are ninjas in the commando units but who am I to question the successful marketing of this product line?

The ninjas actually provide the best reason for the use of 3 D in the movie. There is a long sequence where two American Ninjas must fight against a whole squad of evil "Cobra" ninjas, and capture a duplicitous ninja who is somehow connected to the good guy ninjas. Read that sentence back, believe it or not that is an accurate description. Anyway, even though it makes very little sense, the ninjas repel down mountain sides, use zip lines and pitons to escape and fight on the side of the mountain.  This is all done in a way to allow the ninjas to fly off the screen, swoosh past our faces and then toss another bad guy off the mountain into the audience dimension. All that effort and the bad guy ninja, the cooperates with the good guys for no particular reason except some distant grudge that apparently is awakened by being kidnapped. At least we got to keep the cool customized 3D glasses.More collectible toys to keep the marketing gurus happy.

I did have a vague recollection from the first film that the President had been replaced with a "Cobra" agent. The best part of this continuity is that Jonathon Pryce returns to the film and lends it his dignity. How an English guy got elected President in the first place is a mystery, but I guess if we can have a President from Kenya, we can have one from England. (For those of you with no sense of humor, that is a joke, Do not take it as a belief in birtherism or Manchurian conspiracy theory). Channing Tatum was also in the first film, but it appears that the producer's did not realize how his career was going to take off. I heard that one of the reasons for the year long delay in releasing this was to put more of Mr. Tatum in the movie.  Joseph Gordon Levitt played the bad guy in the first film but I guess he didn't want to be back or was not going to get paid his current rate. He is replaced by a costume, and it is no great loss, he was almost not in the other movie either. Two stunt guy actors get pretty good parts, Rays Stevenson and Park. There is also a juicy part for Walton Goggins, Amanda's current crush. And the kid from Jurassic Park dies early.

The two biggest assets G.I.Joe Retaliation has going for it are Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis. These two guys are in nearly every movie coming out in the first eight months of 2013. Whatever they are not in stars Mark Wahlberg.  I have always enjoyed "The Rock" in movies, and I was never a wrestling fan. He has a good star presence, lifting even terrible material to at least mediocre. Bruce Willis is one of our favorites, but after the awful "Die Hard" sequel earlier this year, I was a little concerned. He seems to have awakened from that slumber (or given that the film was delayed, fallen into a slumber). Here his natural charisma adds to the film and he gets to punch in some energy without having to carry the film on his own.

If I had played with the later toys, I probably would not need a score card to keep track of all the players. No one is invested with much of a character except Johnson and Tatum, and their character comes delivered via video game, so you can tell how thin it is going to be. Stuff blows up, guns go off, swords get crossed and characters live on to fight in another sequel. I don't really care about any of it, but it was fine while I was there. I'm sure I won't remember much about it in a couple of weeks. I am afraid I do want to see General Patton's Ivory Handled .45s being used on the bad guys, that might be enough to get me into the theater three years from now, but nothing in the story is going to last long enough to anticipate it.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

Gerard Butler has been in some terrible movies in the last few years. His roles in "Phantom of the Opera" and "300" are almost a decade old now. So how does a guy, stuck in crappy romantic comedy hell redeem himself and return to box office success? The answer appears to be produce your own film, choose something that emphasizes the things that made you a star in the first place, and surround yourself with talented people who know how to make a movie work. The result is "Olympus has Fallen" an entertaining as all get out throwback to the action films of twenty years ago. This is the movie that "A Good Day to Die Hard" should have been.

Every few years we get studios battling it out with dueling films on similar themes. Back in the 1980s, two studios combined to merge Diane Fossey movies into "Gorillas in the Mist". Four years later there were two Robin Hood projects, one studio blinked and sold their product to television. Then there were matching Volcano movies and battling Meteor destroying the Earth films. This year we have two action films about an attack on the White House. "Olympus has Fallen" hits theaters first and sets a pretty high standard for action movie mayhem. The set up is pretty straightforward although preposterous. North Korean terrorists seize the President in order to gain political and military advantages. I get the impression from the trailer for "White House Down" that we will be getting domestic terrorists seeking a similar objective. I don't know how that will play, but it appears that Kim Jung Un wants us to believe this is possible. The North Koreans are acting in a belligerent and bellicose manner at this very moment, and the film exploits that behavior pretty well to make the premise somewhat acceptable.

The degree of firepower used in the take over of the White House in this film is alarming. The violence is brutal and there is a good reason that this film is rated R. The Secret Service and the D.C. based military units committed to defending the President's house are out gunned and the level of brutality was somewhat reminiscent of the last "Rambo" movie. Killing is indiscriminate and there are no rules of war being observed. If you are not up for a violent film then you better skip this, but if this is the kind of action that you crave, this movie will fill your plate. While much of the battle is CGI enhanced, there are dozens of extras and actors who take the stunts to the limit, flying through the air or having squibs explode their bodies. A lot of modern technology has been focused on this film. I have mentioned in some past reviews that it appears that Eastern Europe is rapidly replacing Korea and Taiwan as the leader in animated and computer rendered effects. There were several sections in the credits where every name ended with a v, usually an ov. Those that did not end with a v ended with an a. Bulgaria must be swarming with computer animators looking for work.

Butler plays a Secret Service agent with a bit of a history. We are shown his heroic nature and the nature of his failure early in the movie. The purpose of this is to add to the drama with the President's family and to raise questions in the minds of those dependent on him later in the movie. His character however, never has any doubts about his own ability. He never hesitates to act when needed and he behaves in a very consistent and aggressive manner in the film. This is how people want to see Butler, kicking ass and taking names, not trading banter with a series of actresses who can't carry a picture on their own. There are some good "Die Hard" type exchanges with the bad guy, and he gets to argue with generals and the acting President. None of the dialogue reaches the comic heights that Bruce Willis manages in the first four Die Hard" films, but there are a couple of nasty comebacks that give us some satisfaction.

The movie that this should most be compared with is "Air Force One".  The plot is simple, there are insiders who betray the President, it is one against many and the outside leadership group often feels powerless to act. There are plot holes that you can ignore because what is happening in front of you is more fun than noticing that there are other choices and options that the protagonist and the temporary command structure are missing. The cast is loaded with good actors who make their scenes work more effectively. Angela Bassett, Robert Forester, and Melissa Leo bring some gravitas to the silly goings on. Any time you get Morgan Freeman playing the President (Acting or Elected), you get some sense that people want this to be seen as something more than a cartoon. Dylan McDermott gets to return to work for the secret service, a job he had twenty years ago in "In the Line of Fire". Rick Yune plays the lead terrorist, mimicking his role in the last Pierce Brosnon 007 film. The poor guy seems to be getting a little type cast, but his acting range appears to fit the type so it's probably just as well that he gets to work at all.  Gerard Butler has some early scenes where he gets a chance to emote a bit, but once the action starts, he basically turns into the action figure that a movie like this requires. He brings enough personality to the performance to raise it above the level of a straight to video programmer. Aaron Eckhart plays the President and he is believable but underwritten. There are some nice sequences with his son that set up some more emotional points but it is standard stuff.

The action is staged energetically. Big fights and battles are mixed in with one on one combat. There are also several high tech operations and weapons that add to the suspense in the film. There are some good ploys by the bad guys to disguise some of their actions, but there are also several things that are left unexplained. It would be easy to knit pick the films plot and twists but why would you? If you paid your money to be entertained, you will be. If you wanted something that was logically sound, you will be disappointed, and you should have your head examined for wanting that from the film in the first place.  I also enjoyed the patriotic flourishes spread out through the movie. The Secretary of Defense defiantly shouts the pledge of allegiance, the American Flag is mistreated but ultimately restored, portraits of the Presidents are often shown in background shots and Abraham Lincoln makes a guest appearance and this time it's not vampires he is hunting.  This movie feels like it was made in the 1990s. The plot, action and tone recall the days of  the great action films of those times. This will be one of those movies in the future that are sometimes called "Black Hole" films. Their gravitational pull is so great that the viewer can't resist. (Thanks Dan for that term). If I don't see it again in theaters, I know I will experience it a hundred times on cable, and each time i will enjoy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

R.I.P. Uncle Vernon

Richard Griffiths, best known for the Harry Potter Films has passed at the age of 65. He doesn't look anything like Matt LeBlanc (Episodes Reference). I remember him doing an odd little dance in "Guarding Tess", it was a nice moment. Deadline Hollywood Obit.

And here he is in one of the Naked Gun films.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings.

This is a flashback to the original purpose of the blog. If you were unaware, I started this blog as a tribute to movies I saw in the summers of the 1970s, when I was in high school and college. This film was on my original list of movies that I could have posted on but it was not available anywhere. I looked on You Tube and found music clips but I could not find a trailer for the film. It's not some obscure film, it stars the biggest movie star of the 1970's, Burt Reynolds and it was directed by John Avildsen, whose next film won him the Academy Award, Rocky.

I saw this movie at the Century Theater in San Gabriel in the summer of 1975.
This is what it looked like in the late 1980s before it was torn down. As you can see after it closed as an Edwards Theater, it was re-purposed as a Chinese language theater. Most of the stand alone theaters in the area ended up in the same situation. The Monterey, and the Garfield, were both on the street that I lived on and they both showed Chinese language films until they were torn down or remodeled for something else. I know I saw this with my friend Don Hayes and his high school sweetheart and future ex-wife Cheryl Bolton. The movie featured car crashes and a special edition Oldsmobile 55, so that is probably why Don went, he liked cars. I know it must have been an evening show because matinees only ran on weekends and I distinctly remember going during the week since I did not have a job I had to show up to the next morning.

The movie is typical 1970s low budget fodder. Burt plays a good ole boy driving a fancy car, who takes a liking to a girl in a country western singing group. The movie is set in 1957, and there are some brief references to the rock and roll revolution that is taking place. The setting is the South, most of the time Nashville, because the goal of the group is to make it to the Grand Ole Opry. W.W. is a fast talking, small time crook who has managed to rob a series of gas stations without leaving much of a trace to follow. He accomplishes this by just being good natured and giving the employees a little kickback. Ultimately, it is his mode of operating that gets him and the band in trouble and high jinks occur. There are some car chases and crack ups, and a few songs by Jerry Reed and Don Williams.

Art Carney is featured as a Bible Thumping lawman, asked to hunt down the robbers by the head of the Company that owns the chain of gas stations Burt victimizes. This was his first role after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor the year before. So there is another reason that is a little odd that the movie is not really available. There is a pretty good payoff set up early on in the movie that let's the confrontation between he an W.W. get somewhat resolved at the end of the movie. The film also features Ned Beatty as a country star that writes hit songs and the band wants his help. There is a scene where they meet him and his down home charm is turned sour in a pretty effective way. In the end he redeems himself and it probably is as his character says, just one of the hazards of success. Beatty worked with Reynolds pretty frequently over the years and is featured in "Gator" and "White Lightning" two other films from the original project.

I happened to catch this just after it started on the Fox Movie Channel this morning and it was quite entertaining. There were two or three good little touches in the movie, like the two toned car, the approach that Reynold's character uses in robbing the gas stations and the Art Carney role. It's not essential viewing but it is worth a couple hours of your time if you happen to see it playing somewhere. I just am trying to plug some holes from the original project and this was a nice one to get to fill.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Happy Birthday Strother Martin

The legendary character actor Strother Martin would have turned 94 today. He is one of the most recognizable faces and voices from movies in the middle part of the twentieth century. In 1969, he was in all three of the great westerns that year; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and The Wild Bunch. Appearing in one of those films would be something to be proud of, being in all of them in the same year is amazing.

He worked as part of Paul Newman's troop of supporting actors repeatedly. You will see him in most of Newman's films of the 1960s and 1970s. He also worked in John Wayne films more than a half dozen times  in the same time frame. He frequently provided the comic relief in a western, or played an ineffectual businessman or crook. The parts he was known for on television and in the westerns was that of "Prairie Scum". If there was a call for a disgusting vermin from the plains or dirty desert or crawling out of the mountains, he probably played it or was looked at for it.

He was one of many Western Actors who would define the image of the old west on TV shows, but also bring home the unpleasantness of real prairie scum with a vengeance.  He starred with Raquel Welch, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam in Hannie Caulder. The three villains were not just bank robbers who pulled their neckerchiefs over their faces, they were heartless, self centered cruel men who deserved the comeuppance that the will receive by the end of the movie.

His best known role was probably that of the Captain of the Chain Gang that Paul Newman serves on in "Cool Hand Luke". It is his voice that echoes the famous line that often defined the 1960's:

In my opinion, it was a great performance that should have been recognized with dozens of awards. It is however number 11 on the American Film Institutes list of greatest movie quotes.

As you can see he was often the frustrated loser whol steals a scene and then moves on.

Below is an obituary from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Strother died the day before my wedding. He was my Mother's cousin and we expected him at the service. She knew why he did not come, and she did not tell me because she did not want it to overshadow the day. 1980 was not like today with a twenty four hour news cycle. I did not find out until Sunday Morning in the papers when we were on our honeymoon. This article was one of the ones my mother saved.

I can't say I knew him well. We visited he and his wife Helen several times out at their place out in the Agoura area of Southern California. I missed the funeral because I was on my honeymoon but we did go to see Helen a few days later and the house was filled with condolences from colleagues in the movie and TV business. I remember reading a very nice note from Lee Marvin that spoke fondly of the times they had worked together. My Grandmother's family had always called him Jay, I don't know if that was a nickname from childhood or if it was a shortened version of Junior. He was only 60 when he passed, and he was still an in demand actor with a pretty good cult following. One of the last things I saw him in while he was alive was the Cheech and Chong movie "Up in Smoke". He was only in it in the first five minutes but it was exactly the kind of film all my friends at the time would be going to.

A pretty good illustration of his cult status is the presence of a mural featuring his image in the Rampart section of Los Angeles. by world renown artist Kent Twitchell.

Last year I noticed it was his birthday by accident, this year I knew it was coming so I prepared this little salute for him. Actors are an interesting breed, we often feel like we know them when the only contact we have had with them is through the screen. Some actors manage to get under your skin and make an impression on you even if they are not the lead in the story. We know so many of them as "Oh yeah, that guy", it seems a shame that we don't get to know them better. Here's hoping that all the great character actors working today will be remembered fondly as well. I think Jay would have liked that.

Jay, my little brother Kirk, and me. Out in Agoura around 1966.


If you click the poster it will take you to the Vlog Page I have set up to put Video Posts on.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Croods

The Croods is pretty much what you would want from an animated family film. There is a breathtaking visual palate, a family safe adventure, and humor geared to the little ones and the adults in your group. While it does not reach the heights of a Pixar film or  the the warmth of traditional Disney fare, it is serviceable and entertaining if not always memorable. This is exactly the kind of movie that parents want to be able to take their children to during spring break and the timing of it's release should insure that the movie is pretty successful.

From a story perspective, "The Croods" is pretty standard stuff. It is a coming of age story that focuses on a family of cavemen. Just as the oldest daughter is entering a rebellious stage, the territory of the planet is changing and newer smarter hominids appear and offer a threat of change but also survival. Of course the newest species is represented by a hunk of a cave boy who is threatening to the Dad/Leader of the family troop in a couple of obvious ways. This gives us a teen age romance and a middle age crisis all in one fell swoop. There are some contrived personal relationship moments but they fit with the theme of the film and while they may be cliche, there is a reason that cliches exist in the first place. Basically families are problematic but ultimately they are held together by the love that each member feels for the others.

We skipped seeing this in 3D but it looks like it might have been fun. It does seem to me however that in order to take advantage of the 3D  process, every animated movie is using some kind of sweeping swooshing flume ride style action sequence. Once again, as was true in a number of previous animated 3D films, characters slide down slopes, get swallowed by tube like caves and roll away on waterways to give us a thrill in visual dimensions. There is also a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as creatively designed creatures to keep us jumping and oohing and aahing.  James Cameron's Pandora has nothing on these imaginative animated images.

The character voice work is efficient. Nichols Cage is somewhat subdued since his performance here is animated and the over the top delivery he is often guilty of in live action films is moderated by this format. Everyone else was fine but not very distinctive. Cloris Leachman does the patented old lady routine that was the realm of Phyllis Diller and Betty White before her. Emma Stone does fine by "Eep", the teen age cave girl with more curiosity than her father is ever going to be happy with. Ryan Reynold voices the appropriately named "Guy", plenty resonate and future hunk-like. So many people contribute to animated films that it is difficult to pinpoint credit or blame for some elements. There are only seven human characters, most of the other voice/sound work involves animals and eruptions. I appreciated that "The Croods" did not attempt to live up to their names. There were no fart or poop jokes, and that is pretty rare for a kids movie now a days.

There is an early sequence that apes American Football and it seemed obvious to me that the Trojan Marching Band/Fleetwood Mac hit "Tusk" was being used very freely. It turns out that it was adapted by the film score composer and there was credit given, alleviating the need for a lawsuit except by Bruin fans who are unknowingly going to be subjected to chants of "U-C-L-A sucks" during this scene. Maybe that's why i ended up liking the movie as well as I did. The reality is that there were plenty of parents with their kids at the a.m. screening we went to, and all the little girls seemed happy to be there and all the little boys identified with the adventure elements. If it is a success, someone will plan a sequel, but I think in the long run it would be better for the reputation of the film if it stays a one off. The story does not demand any follow up and the creativity would probably diminish. Very much like it's stable mate "Madagascar ", "The Croods" is a well executed piece of entertainment that could overstay it's welcome. Let's just enjoy it for what it is and move on to something else next time.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Three Perfect Movies

 My memory of the 1990s is that it was not a great time for movies. That doesn't mean that there weren't great movies but rather the degree of consistency and the memorability of films left something to be desired. I'm sure this must be a false impression because there were so many films that I recall fondly from the times. It's just that the gritty seventies films were more meaningful and the bombastic eighties films were memorable. Truth be told, I can think of dozens of movies that came from the 1990s that I still love, OK cancel the first sentence of this post and let's start over.

There are so many great movies from the 1990s that people remember and that defined the times. "Titanic", "Unforgiven", "saving Private Ryan", it may be tough for you to remember some of the second tier films that really made the decade sparkle. I have been meaning to share my thoughts on some films that I have thought of as "perfect" since the day I saw them. "Perfect" does not mean they are the best films ever made or that they are of such superior production that all other films should get out of their way. For my purpose here, "Perfect" means that there is not a note in the film I would change. There is an absolute satisfaction that comes, for me at least, from indulging in any one of these movies. The casting, script, line delivery, scenario, music or set design could not be improved upon by any additional time, money, or technology.

The three films I am going to share with you here give me a warm glow in my belly, they put a smile on my face, and they make me long for the days when mid-level budgets and creativity were valued in the film community.

Number One on my list is my guiltiest pleasure. We have a western, starring Sharon Stone.

The Quick and the Dead

It is hard for me to explain to people that I love a Sharon Stone movie, much less a western that features her as a revenge driven gunfighter. Stone's career spent five years in the spotlight and she has been sliding down ever since. While never a critic's darling, she did have some worthy performances, but she became such a cliche of the sexuality of the times that she now mostly is a punchline. I still don't care, she was a hot woman with a gun strapped on her hip and she was trading western quips with some pretty great actors.

The movie is basically a spaghetti western without the need for dialogue looping. The premise is a direct homage to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West", with several other nods to the Clint Eastwood films of Leone as well. Listen to the music and you can hear both the beautiful melodic theme of the film but also the comic bombastic dramatic flourish that accompanies many of the scenes.

Listen to the last minute of the theme above and imagine the gunfighters stepping out onto the streets. It is perfect. I refuse to watch this film on any panned and scanned format because you will miss the reactions of the participants in the gunfights as they go on simultaneously. Director Sam Rami has a fetish with the camera and zoom dolly shots that just work perfectly in this movie.

The Quick and the Dead Features a cast that is just incredible. You start with Sharon Stone, then add the great Gene Hackman in a villainous role that drips of snake oil. An exuberant young Leonardo DeCaprio appears and he looks about twelve years old but plays it just right as a wanna-be in a town full of scum. Also appearing, five years before he became an international box office star in "Gladiator", Russell Crowe plays a reformed gunfighter dragged back into this quick draw contest. Watch for five minutes and you will know that he was going to be a sensation, it was just a matter of time. Oh, and Gary Sinese shows up in flashback scenes and classes up the film even more.

The story is repetitive because it basically features a series of showdowns in a sixteen person bracket gun-fighting contest.  The film succeeds because it makes each of the gunfights worthy and interesting. There is a twist, a line of dialogue or a memorable screen shot that will stick in your head and leave you able to distinguish each of the fast draw contests from one another. Be careful if you watch below, there is a mild spoiler but a great Gene Hackman scene and a good illustration of the gunfights that went on in the movie.


To this day, if this movie is on when I flip through the channels, I stop and I am mesmerized.  Gene Hackman is so perfect and this was the third or fourth western he did in the early 1990s.  "Unforgiven", "Geronimo" and "Wyatt Earp" all came just before this. Maybe the reason he stopped working is that there were no more westerns to make. I can't not look. This movie is a perfect homage to the western, a perfect performance from Gene Hackman, a perfect cast, and perfectly entertaining. If you disagree you are perfectly welcome to say so, as you stuff it.

Galaxy Quest

Every movie I go to see I want to be great. Most are not, a few end up amazing me, but I am not sure if I have ever been more entertained by and surprised by a movie than I was with "Galaxy Quest". It is a Science Fiction Comedy parody of "Star Trek" but at it's center is a heart as big as the galaxy. It starts out a little mean spirited and sour, but that is just so we can grow to appreciate how wonderful it is to be a fan and to be able to say that you touched other people with your work.

Tim Allen plays a Shatner like character who is full of himself but dismissive of the work that got him to that point. In the cast is Sigourney Weaver in a comedy performance that shows what kind of acting chops she really has (that and a blonde wig and a push up bra turn her character into something to wonder at). Alan Rickman is one of the most under rated actors of the last twenty five years. His character in this is hysterical and grounded so much in the real world despite wearing the most inane make-up appliances ever created for a weekly TV series. Rickman has never been nominated for an Academy Award, even for his brilliant ten year sojourn into the world of Harry Potter. He could easily have been nominated for this role if comedies were not so easliy dismissed by the serious world of film acting.

In the background of the story you have two of the greatest scene stealing supporting players of the last thirty years. Tony Shaloub can do comedy and drama with one hand tied behind his back. Here he plays it like he is a pot addled TV star with simply perfect timing. He is zoned out blissful in a way that never seems right except that it always works and gets the laughs that the story is going for. Earlier this week, I posted on a site that mentioned Sam Rockwell as one of the actors that you would see in anything. I'll agree and say that if you love Rockwell but have not seen this film, you may have missed his greatest role ever. He plays the third tier guest star that is clinging to what fame he once had but ends up living out the dream and nightmare of his one episode character. On "Star Trek" he would be a "red shirt", one of the many doomed actors who's character is not going to be coming back next season.

Watch this clip if you have already seen the movie, if not, save it for actually watching the movie. Some one on line strung together his best scenes, it is a few minutes of perfection.

What is so special about the movie at the end is that it take all the geeks to heart and treats the actors with the respect that they frequently miss but definitely deserve.  I laugh at everything in this film every time I see it, and I have seen it a lot of times. It is not gross out humor or cheap one liners, it is humor based on the characters and the story and it is so worth your time. Warning: Consuming this film may result in a life long addiction that will drain time away from your busy life every time the damn thing shows up on the satellite. 

That Thing You Do

I don't always know why a movie connects with me so much. I just know that I love it and I wish everyone would share my love for it as well. "That Thing You Do", is just Pop perfection. The characters, the music, and the love story leave me feeling as if these people really were a part of my life. I can tell you this movie is perfect as it is because I have an extended cut of the movie that makes the film almost half an hour longer but very much weaker. Tom Hanks wrote and directed this gem, and the editor he worked with prunes this film to a brisk focused piece of entertainment. I enjoyed seeing the extra footage one time, but I have never gone and watched it again because the theatrical cut is so satisfying.

Set in the summer of 1963, the story tells of the rise and fall of a band with a big hit. The world is full of one hit wonders, and this film shows why so many talented acts may have only one song to contribute to musical history. It also shows why we should appreciate the magic that brings together all of the elements that make a song work. It may be the hook, or a lyric, or the tempo, or it may simply be the times. Eveyone will probably be sick of "Call Me, Maybe". This film shows how you can exploit a song and still not ever tire of it. The main song is worked out and played a half dozen times in the story but each time it feels fresh and we get to be inspired a bit more by the creative and romantic hearts behind it.

I never played with a rock band, but I did do the fair circuit with my Dad's magic act, and he appeared on the Hollywood Palace, which is the show that the fictional Hollywood Showcase in this movie is based on. All of the show business stuff feels very real. Sitting down with the family to watch your family member appear on national television is exactly what we did in 1966. The TV trays and dinners were authentic as was the excitement. My older brother played the guitar and had the amps and speakers that these guys used in their early shows. The college talent show, the rock and roll all star theater shows and the fair circuit may be relics of the past, but they make us long for a less cynical time when playing for a crowd was the payoff, not the means to getting somewhere else.

Tom Everett Scott is clearly standing in for a younger Tom Hanks. Hanks still gets to be in the movie as the ominous but supporting Mr. White, the record company A & R man. Liv Tyler is beautiful and sweet and when she delivers her denouncement of Jimmy, it is heartbreakingly real. Just as Sam Rockwell practically steals "galaxy Quest", Steve Zahn nearly makes off with this movie. His goofy guitarist has the personality that the band needs. When Mr. White refers to him as the clown, I don't think it is dismissive. He knows that a band need personality. My guess is that Ringo Starr may have been the least talented of the Beatles, but he was the one with the most personality, that freed up everyone else. Zahn's  Lenny pushes the band to do new things, smash their way forward and do it all with an optimistic smile and a great laugh. 

There are another half dozen perfect characters in the story, the world weary cocktail waitress, the social climbing girlfriend, the obnoxious D.J., that all make the movie keep sailing. I especially like Guy's eternally frustrated father. Every line of dialogue uttered by the Dad is comic gold, laced with a little bit of resentment but a great amount of understanding. I don't know if Hank's own father was like this but there are millions of us out there that recognized that guy as our own fathers.  

If you can't find a couple hours of your life to watch this joyous miracle of a movie, I feel sad for you. Your life must be one of harsh hard work without the relief that comes from a few moments of relaxation. If on the other hand you do not work 16 hours a day or live in a shelter depending on the kindness of strangers to feed you, get up right now and find this movie. Put something in your life that is as perfect as your love for your favorite dog or cat, and see  "That Thing You Do". The only thing you have to lose is sadness.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fog's Movie Reviews Need Your Support.

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When I first saw the trailer for this film it seemed like a horror film with suspense elements and an upscale cast.  Many who see it might describe it that way but after viewing it my impression is quite a bit different. There are very few horror elements, I don't think it is very suspenseful, and some of the cast is underutilized. Stoker turns out to be a film that holds us at a distance, sometimes wanting us to empathize with the lead character, and other times striving to have us repulsed by her. We never get a very clear handle on how she feels about the events that are over taking her life, and even at the end of the film, the story is ambigious concerning motivations and actions.

Many times during my screening I considered how much like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock presents this reminded me of. We have a young girl, still in high school, who suffers the loss of her father but seems to be handling it by detaching herself from everyone else she is connected with. Because we come into the story at this point, it is difficult to understand if her reaction is shock or if she is one of those people that we all are learning to watch out for. You know the ones with no friends or social skills who plan elaborate killing sprees for no discernible reason? "India" is the name of the character, and there is not really any reason for her name to be exotic, except that it creates an aura without having to generate any story to go with it. There is another character named "Whip" and it seems that everyone is fine with the names but the personalities are not reflected by those names. It is simply an affectation and it was a little irritating when the two main male characters names are "Richard" and "Charlie". The story is hyper stylized in the way it is shot, and that is another thing that draws attention to the film instead of the characters. The story has a flashback structure and begins with a ponderous and thick headed piece of narration that almost sounds like poetry. It is "Art" not a story that is going to make this work if anything can.

There are a lot of beautiful shots in the film. Nicole Kidman's character appears in some scenes only in the mirror that our lead is looking into. There is another shot where "India" and her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) are conversing, but he only exists as a shadow on the wall while she is speaking. A phone booth is fogged up for no barometric reason at all, it just makes the scene a little more unique to look at. The dead father was an architect and I guess that explains the easy availability of  five foot wide stone spheres that are perfectly round on the property. It's one of those movies where you feel like you are in someones dreams the whole time that you are watching events unfold. The two leads speak in a style that is hyper mundane, which sounds like an oxymoron but accurately describe the lack of passion that either of them exhibits until the last quarter of the movie. When emotions do begin to surface, they appear only on one characters face, the other remains bored and indifferent, as if continuing to live out a dream they have had before.

In a couple of instances, there are some flashes of emotion but since they occur in flashback scenes that give us different interpretations of what took place and seem to be entirely in the mind of only one character, those moments seem untrustworthy. Is "India" washing herself to get rid of blood, semen or is she simply masturbating for the first time? Each variation of the scene drives us further from anything that makes much sense. When the story plays out the revelations that are supposed to clarify what is going on, we can't really trust it, despite the fact that it appears we are supposed to know that this section is "true". Nicole Kidman's character is either a grief motivated zombie, a slut or an indifferent and distant parent. She sometimes accepts the things that are being said and at other times ignores them. When she gets her final scenes with Goode, I wondered how she could be so smart and so gullible at the same time. The end of the movie comes with a totally unnecessary act by "India" after a totally necessary action. Like I said earlier, the tone of the movie is a bit bi-polar when it comes to her character.

There are some disturbing moments in the background story, and some pretty gruesome moments of violence during the rest of the tale. The Hitchcock reference to "Shadow of a Doubt " is clear enough but the story stays so ambiguous and mystical at times that I mostly did not care. Mia Wasikowska was solid in "Lawless" last year, but is playing it so low key in this film that I could not tell if it was a performance or narcolepsy. She is supposed to be smart but there are no signs of that, she is supposed to be a proficient hunter, but that is told to us rather than shown to us. That she has some special way of seeing the world that she shares with her Uncle Charlie is put into background narration but not really demonstrated. The fact that a spider crawls between her legs into her crotch is creepy, but not because of anything happening during the story, just because it is creepy. I just failed to connect with this movie on so many points and I am disappointed as a result. I can't recommend it, but I would not pull you away from it if it interests you. In the end it did not move me as much as it irritated me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This is the second week in a row, that a magician is featured in a big movie opening. I doubt that this will have the box office that "Oz the Great and Powerful" had, but it is an entertaining film that should go down pretty well with most audiences. There are some risque elements that might prevent it from being a family film, but it does have that kind of sensibility. It feels like a movie that could be enjoyed by family members together (except for the penis and sex jokes). The story is straightforward fall and redemption, with quite a few funny bits along the way. There are no real surprises in the story except for some of the pretty good laughs that many might be surprised they are experiencing.

I do want you to know that I come at this from the perspective of someone familiar with this area of show business. My Dad could have played the Alan Arkin character, without having to do a lot of acting. While he never sold Magic Kits, he did sell plenty of tricks and effects. There was one effect call "It" that could have been the illusion that launches the young Burt on his journey to magic fame. I do think there is the usual stereotyping of magicians as socially awkward outsiders, so it seems a bit much to have the poor kid burdened with bullies, a lack of friends and a absentee mother all at the same time. I do think that the motivation for a lot of kids is to be more the center of attention and to build friendships, but the sad sack loser moniker feels a bit obvious. I do remember the Marshal Brodin magic kits that did sell on television.

I bet lots of kids got inspired by this sort of thing but very few of them followed through. The idea of entertaining your friends requires that you have friends first. The most realistic part of the film comes at a kids birthday party, where we get a chance to see how real kids respond to the idea of the impossible.Let me get to the story and film issues first and then I will come back to some of the magic points.

After the two kids become friends in magic at the beginning of the movie, they grow up to be tandem magicians like Siegfried and Roy. If you pay any attention to the time lines this movie will not make much sense. The lead actors are playing nearly twenty years younger than they actually are and the legacy of big time magic on the Vegas strip is twenty years later than it makes much sense for it to be. What isn't clear is why Carell's Burt has become estranged from his friend and partner, Buscemi's Anton. Their act is shown to be intricately plotted and practiced, and maybe the boredom is enough to drive a wedge between them, but it feels like there is some back-story missing. The show they do is corny but entertaining, and they are a success. Despite the fact that young Burt was the initiator of their work together, it appears that his character has lost all interest in new things and listening to his partner. Anton turns into the driving creative force and Burt appears to be the pompous front man. Buscemi seems to have accepted that he is going to be the butt of ugly jokes, but it does seem a little painful at times to watch them being said.This might make sense in the world of Rock and Roll, but it feels like a shortcut in the storytelling here. There is some nice humor built into the Vegas style Magic act, and the Hangman's routine is not the only thing that it appears they got from David Copperfield. When Burt requires his lovers to sign a release form, it has some of the creepy shadow of Copperfield's island seduction story hanging over it.

The introduction of Jim Carey as Steve Gray, a Criss Angel clone is a good plot development. Every generation of performers looks at the next and shakes their head in disbelief at how far the world has changed on them. Carey is both a  magician and a street freak. There are elements of magic in what he does but there are so many things about the style of his act that scream "carnival geek" that I started to look for a chicken every time he was on screen. The fascination with the morbid seems to have become an obsession and part of the movie focuses on how this has changed the nature of entertainment. Carey plays it just right and manages to mock the paranormal pretensions and stupid gross out effects of the "mind-freaks".  After a convoluted but perfectly understandable series of movie plot techniques puts Burt into a position where he has to accept a booking as a kids entertainer, we get a chance to see some of the real elements of performing take place. Everyone likes money and fame, but magicians like entertaining even more. Carey's lunatic performer has some impressive illusions, the question becomes, is it entertainment? As the two engage in a battle of magic performance for a group of ten year olds, we get to see that the nuts, is not always as entertaining as we might think it is. Olivia Wilde is the wanna be magician, working as an assistant, who sees this early on. She originally worshiped Burt as a kid, loathed him as an employer, and finally respected him again as an entertainer when it is all about the audience. When the oldsters at the retirement home get the attention they need and the kids at the birthday party get the fun they should have, then you can see why someone would become a magician.

The stuff with the loser magicians in the magic bar is fun but it repeats the same joke at the beginning of the movie, that people drawn to this field have something wrong with them. Arkin adds some much needed humanity to the whole film. He is light and funny while also managing to refocus on the ultimate theme of the film. In the end, we see that there is some merit in what the performers do. When we go back to the competing magician theme to finish the movie, there is a little bit of a betrayal of that theme. In order to pull off the trick that will win them the gig, they have to return to a kind of contempt for the audience. Here we get some of the funniest stuff with the "Vanishing Audience" illusion, but we also betray the theme that made the middle part of the story work. I was also a little surprised we did not get a joke that this is what got them into this situation in the first place, making the audience disappear.

After the fantastic credit sequences and end cards we got in last week's "Oz", it was a little bit of a let down to not have some clever graphics and jokes during the exit. This was another example of how conventional the movie was. It feels like it is trapped in the 1980s in tone and style, just like Burt and Anton were. The theater that they perform in during their Vegas shows doesn't look like a Vegas showroom. It is the most conventional theater setting you can imagine, this is another element of the simplified nature of the movie.
As I look back over some of the things I wrote here it seems like I did not care for the movie, but in truth I enjoyed it immneselly. There are a lot of jokes that are subtle and funny and several that are not subtle but also very funny. You will have a good time but it won't be something that will last for long in your memory. There are two or three vulgar bits, and a couple of gross visuals, but it is all in keeping with a PG-13 time at the show. 

If you are interested in seeing some real old time magic, click the poster to the left and visit with a stage performer who always loved his audience and his work.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The World According To Dick Cheney

Cheney is probably the most reviled political figure in recent history, at least by those on the left. There are legitimate issues about his role in the War on Terror and the wisdom of his advice. Most of the criticism though comes with the burden of conspiracy fantasies and name calling that simply makes the critics seem like petulant children. The meme of Dick Cheney as the Darth Vader behind the Emperor, might raise angry voices and dollars for the Democratic Party, but it does little to let us understand the reasoning, the means and the results of Cheney's world view. This documentary actually gives a pretty fair view of both points of view on Cheney. His critics will suggest that it is too lenient on him and that he should be dragged through the streets and hung like Mussolini. His supporters will probably complain that the editing and sequencing of music and interviews and pictures, are a bit selective in pushing the theme that he was a manipulator of information.

The best aspect of this work is that there is an extensive interview with the Vice President, where he explains in his own voice the decisions he made and the point of view that he supports. I suspect that many will be infuriated by his indifference to the criticism he has received. After all the sound and fury of their attacks, he seems completely unruffled by those voices. That is just the thing to stir a hornet's nest. What I found so disheartening is how different he comes across than the current Vice President. Anyone who disagrees with Cheney would still have a hard time arguing that he expresses himself so much more effectively than Joe Biden. Joe is a amiable buffoon in comparison to the reserved gravitas of Cheney. His confidence in what he believes comes across very effectively and when he is disappointed in the actions of Congress or President Bush, it comes through in a resigned smile and a more level tone. The deliberate way in which he expresses himself might be convincing to even hardened leftists if we were simply comparing styles.

Of course it is not about style but about policy that Cheney is most severely judged by. The second half of the documentary focuses on the controversies concerning the case for WMDs,   the prosecution of the war in Iraq, and the case against Scooter Libby. Cheney was a consequential player in the Bush administration, not simply a figure head to be rolled out for fund raising and funerals. The first hour of the film shows why Cheney had the influence that he did. From a very early age he was part of the highest echelons of government. he was an insider on National Security issues from his time in the White House as Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford, and Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He was not a neophyte but a politically savvy insider. I found his personal history interesting because in part I was not familiar with all of it. In twelve years he went from two time Yale reject to Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. He went from being a serial DUI offender, to experienced and intelligent adviser to  the head of state. The foamers out there will probably argue that his role in the Halliburton Company was not explored in any depth here, but it seems more likely that instead of him operating on behalf of that company, he largely functioned based on his long political career and that the economic exigencies of Iraq and Halliburton are coincidental.

It was very clear at the end of the film that Cheney was on the outside at the end of the Bush administration. His advice was largely ignored in the last two years in office and the ascendency of Condi Rice marked the decline of the Cheney  as  Bush's go to on security issues. The documentary does not try to answer whether this was a good or a bad thing but simply show that a shift in the administration had occurred. His impotence is shown as he recounts that there were no hands raised when Bush asked at a meeting of National Security advisers, who supported the Vice President' suggestion to attack the Syrian Nuclear Processing site. Cheney is respectful of the President as the film finishes but you can tell by his tone that he was disappointed in Bush, especially for his failure to pardon Scooter Libby.

Like all documentaries, "The World According to Dick Cheney" has an abundance of political agenda to push. Neither side will feel like it has been fair in the way the subject has been presented, and that may be the best proof that the film makers tried to be historians rather than advocates. Both critics and supporters of the Vice President are given voice in this piece, and both voices are modulated to a pretty reasonable tone. Regardless of whether you think Cheney is evil incarnate or an heroic figure of determined intelligence, I think you will find this film rewarding. It treats the subject seriously and tries to allow the viewer to sort out the information and arrive at an informed rather than impassioned conclusion.

Monday, March 11, 2013

King Kong/King Kong/King Kong

One of the best things I have enjoyed in the last few years is finding others who like sharing their opinions about films. The whole process of using social media and blogging has connected me to several writers on line that I follow regularly. Most are not film professionals nor do they aspire to be. They are passionate enthusiasts of a medium I have loved all my life. They have opinions and ideas that they feel compelled to share with others, and I am usually happy to read them. While I occasionally disagree on some level with them on a particular film or genre, most of the writers I follow are committed to having a friendly dialogue about movies. I am not shy about getting into an argument, but a dispute over opinions is just that, and does not necessitate a flame war. I much prefer to be inspired by the voices out there in a positive way as I am with this post.

My movie memories are a big part of why I write about films. I like to think I understand a little about story telling thru film, but more than that, this is an opportunity to document my feelings and impressions. I suppose that is a little narcissistic, but all good conversations start with some sense of narcissism,  we think others might give a damn about what we think. So I am inspired to write about the three King Kong films because one of the writers I follow devoted three posts to King Kong movies in the last few days and I want to piggyback on the idea. He stuck to the movies he saw on Thanksgiving marathons on the East Coast. Out here on the West Coast, Thanksgiving Day Marathons were devoted to the Twilight Zone, but I could easily have settled in for a Kong Thon before my turkey and dressing.

For someone devoted to movies like I am I must confess it is hard for me to remember my first film. I know my parents took me to 101 Dalmatians right before my brother was born and I have a vague recollection of the experience, thought I would not yet have been four. I do know that by the time I was six, I had seen King Kong, the 1933 classic. I know because we went to the World's Fair in New York in 1964. It was my first time to the Big Apple and I kept looking for Kong on the Empire State building whenever we went out. I remember my mother pointing out the World's Tallest Building (at least I think it was at the time) and telling me to look for Kong. A kid of six takes such advice seriously and I was disappointed that he never showed up, even when we went to the top to check it out. The image of the giant ape climbing the skyscraper is one of the iconic moments in cinema history. It has been lampooned and appropriated for a thousand ads, sketches and performances. At the end of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", as Rocky climbs the RKO Antenna tower with Frankenfurter on his back, the defiant fist pump is a salute to the 1933 original.

I have written before about my desire for emotionalism in movies. I don't need the irony and coldness of most modern motion pictures.  I can take it and enjoy it for what it is, but I like a movie that thrills me, frightens me, makes me laugh or cry. King Kong did all of those things for me when I was a kid. I remember having a nightmare about Kong reaching in his big paw and pulling me out the window. I know I sat on the edge of my seat with a pillow over my face as a kid, watching Kong fight the T-Rex on Skull Island or roll dozens of men off of the giant log that spanned a crevice over which they were pursuing him and then escaping him. I remember two vivid emotions of anticipation in the film before they ever reached the island. Carl Denham is in New York, at the depths of the depression, seeking a woman to take to the island to film his movie. He meets Ann Darrow and gets carried away in recruiting her. " It's money and adventure and fame. It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning", he nearly shouts at her in the diner. That over the top moment thrills me to this day. He is a grown man, excited beyond his ability to contain himself and throwing his whole heart into the adventure. At that moment, I knew I could never resist the siren call of King Kong. The acting style must be thought of as quaint now a days, but to me it has the heart that drives the picture in it. Later on the boat, when he is testing her for photographing and costume, he gives her this direction "Throw your arms across your eyes and scream, Ann. Scream for your life", and that is probably when I learned of foreshadowing in movie story telling.


As a kid I always loved the movies of Ray Harryhausen, stop motion is the most amazing special effect because you can see all the work that goes into it. Willis O'Brien was chiefly responsible for Kong, and the effects while dated still work if you are willing to watch without the jaundiced eyes of a hipper than thou modernist. Just as the dialogue, and set design and treatment of primitive people  is of it's time, so are the effects. Films had only had sound for six years when this came out. I can just imagine how audiences of the time were thrilled by it. I once saw what was purported to be the original armature of Kong at a museum exhibit, it looks like it was probably not the main piece but I am still happy to have had a chance to see the detail that went into producing the greatest special effects character of the first half of movie history.

 The horror of Kong breaking through the giant gate on Skull Island is still pretty vivid. The native child screaming and the mother rushing to grab him before Kong crushes them. Others are torn to bits and chewed up and spit out. Later when Kong arrives in New York and breaks free, I saw the terror in the eyes of the passengers on the elevated train as Kong smashes the track they are riding on. Who can forget the image of the bi-planes attacking Kong, who has become a sympathetic creature due to his love of Ann? The slow motion collapse of the mighty ape on the Empire State building brings a gasp of pity for the creature that previously inspired terror. That is great movie making.

Forty plus years later, someone got it in their head that a remake of the classic would be a good idea. To be honest, the idea is nearly a sure thing because the story is so easy to relate to . Beauty and the Beast, with a giant ape in Manhattan, it practically writes itself. The year I started college, while home during the Christmas break, my family came across a full page ad in the newspaper, announcing the "Most Exciting Original Motion Picture of All Time" to be released one year from the day. My Dad and I were transfixed by the image of Kong astride the twin skyscrapers of the World Trade Center, battling jet aircraft. There was a poster premium we could order. I don't remember if it was cereal box tops or coupons from   some other product, but we immediately sent off for the poster reproduction of that Newspaper ad. We got two mini posters a few weeks later and that poster stayed on my bedroom door until after I was married and moved out of the house. I wish I had remembered it before my Mom cleaned out my old room. I could go and look for it in the garage but I know I will never be lucky enough to find it.

Many disparage the 1976 version of Kong, but I think it is perfectly serviceable and it has a few extras that were missing from the original. Mostly that consists of Jessica Lange being fondled and disrobed by Kong but what the heck. As a film it was quite successful financially if not always artistically. My hometown paper the L.A. Times gave it a very positive review and when my family saw it together that Christmas it came out, we all enjoyed it. The special effects to me are a step backwards. Despite spending a fortune on a full sized mechanical Kong, they had to rely on the old Japanese standby of a man in a suit. Of course the man was Rick Baker, who invented modern effects makeup, and the suit was not some cheap guerrilla costume from Hollywood Magic, but a nicely designed costume with an elaborate set of mechanical effects for facial expressions. The giant mechanical hand and the detailed facial expressions of Kong in this movie are the selling points. There is not really much in the oil plot line, and the New York sequences don't have quite the thrill of 1933. While I have seen the film from time to time since then, it is not a version that I own and it has been a few years since I revisited it. As much as I did enjoy it, I do remember that I stayed away from the sequel a couple of years later, "King Kong Lives", it just did not have the romance that the original story evoked in me.

Peter Jackson's King Kong from 2005 is a movie that I anticipated almost as much as the Lord of the Rings films. Jackson is a bit of a nut on King Kong and he wanted to bring all the technical innovations of the last twenty years to bear on the object of his affection. I watched the web videos and followed the progress of the movie with great care. When the trailer appeared in theaters, I fell in love with the tone and the vision of the movie.

It was a throwback to the 1933 film, a period piece with romanticism and adventure galore. I still love the movie but it is easy to see it's flaws through the rearview mirror. The movie is epic in scale and it takes it's time to tell the story. Jackson can't stop adding material in the second act, and the first was more elaborate than necessary. I do think that the final act is really strong and Naomi Watts lives up to the spell cast by Fay Ray and Jessica Lange before her. The park sequence on the frozen pond is a sweet moment that makes the sacrifice at the end even more bitter for us. For all it's excess, the 2005 version of Kong has it's heart in the right place, on it's sleeve for all of us to see. Nothing can ever top the original, but that's because it is so perfect. All three of the movies do their best to show us the eighth wonder of the world. They are all hyper emotional and romantic in different ways. I dragged my family to a midnight screening of Peter Jackson's Kong and it is a memory that we will all be able to share, regardless of evolving opinions of the film itself. My kids will recall the foggy eyed moment of walking out of the theater at 3:30 in the morning, just as I remember searching for Kong through the back window of our station wagon driving into NYC in 1964, or staring at the mini poster on the wall that my Dad and I so much wanted to get when we saw the ad in the paper. The promo for that film could apply to all three versions. "The Most Exciting Original Motion Picture Event of All Time", OK, of all three times.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful

So this morning I strolled down the Yellow Brick Road and revisited the enchanting land of Oz. Much as it was in 1939, the skies are blue, the forests dark and the promise of Emerald City is boundless. While Dorthy and Toto are nowhere to be found, several  original characters including the Wizard, Glinda, and the Wicked Witch of the West have joined us on our new journey. And while there are not really any glorious songs to sing, there is magic and adventure and heart all around. The technology of 2013 has managed to imitate the craftsmanship of 1939, and the view from here is most satisfying.

As a child, I owned a set of the Oz books and read several of them, but I have very little recall of them. I don't think this film is based on a specific story from Frank L. Baum, instead it is a bridge from his work to the story told seventy four years ago. This story tells the tale of the Wizard and the witches of Oz in an entertaining variation of the musical version. We learn the Wizards origins in the opening section of the movie, done in homage to the MGM classic by starting in black and white in old Kansas, and widening to a broad screen with a vivid color palate once we reach the land of Oz. Many might criticize modern Hollywood for following the lead of Baum in returning to the world of his imagination. It is often said that Hollywood is bereft of new ideas and is thus destined to strip-mine the past for material. That would be a harsh judgement to render here because the story is in fact original and the characters that we encounter simply operate in a world we think we know but for which the imagination continues to invent background.

We knew that the original wizard was a fraud, at least when it comes to the magic of Oz. Yet how does a fake wizard manage to become Oz the first, and wield power for years and be beloved by the citizens of the Emerald City? That's what this movie is all about. It does nothing to step on the lore we knew from Dorothy's visit, it fills in some blank spaces and paints a vivid adventure in the background of what we learned before. The scenes in Kansas create a real sense of place and time, where a carnival performer with big dreams might very well be launched into a giant adventure. Oz knows the kind of magic that men of his time learned to entertain the audience. He knows misdirection and story telling and pyrotechnics. He is a con man but not a malicious one. Women fall for his line but most of them seem to know in the long run that it is a line. I liked that the set up includes some elements that bring about the tragic parts of the story that come later. Oz himself is not blameless in the way wickedness grows in the Land of Oz. Yet it takes an evil twist to produce the outcome that drives the second half of the story. James Franco's Kansas showman and Lothario, has to grow in the course of the story. His shallowness must be revealed to be swept away. It is this arc of the story that makes the film work.

There are four distinct characters that move his progress along. Theodora the witch who discovers and falls for Oz, represents the future without Oz growing. The beautiful Mila Kunis is a little young and not given much chance to show any depth in her character. In the long run, we will feel deeply for the impact the wizard ends up having on her. Finley, the talking and flying monkey, represents the need that Oz has to grow as a human being; loyalty and sacrifice demand from Oz, something he is reluctant to give. Many years later we will hear this echoed in the words that Oz bestows on the Tin Man when he wants a heart. This was a really effective CGI character that adds immensely to the entertainment value of the picture. The China Doll is the opportunity for Oz to act on the impulses he has always had, decency and caring, but that he has dismissed as impractical. He knows that he can't do real magic but he can do a world of good if he gives himself a chance. If you don't eventually fall in love with this ceramic CGI creation, there is something wrong with your heart and you better go see the Wizard yourself.  Finally, Glinda the Good Witch, is his opportunity to stop being a good time Charley and instead be the good man that he despairs of being at the beginning of the story. Michelle Williams was deft and light in this part. She doesn't sound like Billie Burke, but she comes across as sweet and loving as anyone could want.

Franco gets a lot of the notes wrong, but many more of them right. The director allows him to use his smile a bit too often when he could try another expression to convey his change. Sometimes the body movement is a little over the top, but it is forgivable because it is at heart a children's story and things do get exaggerated there. When the Wicked Witch of the West appears, we get excellent foreshadowing of the elements that made her a nightmare for the last six generations of movie lovers. The face, the cackle and the broomstick will leave most viewers glad that we know it will only take a little water to save ourselves. While the effects are contemporary, the style is classic from 1939. This is the stuff I think makes it all work in the long run. We get characters that are true to the world we know, and a story we don't know. The modern wizardry of computers is bent to the classic means of story telling.  The movie is marvelous in appearance and manages to evoke the musical without making itself a duplicate. We don't live in the world of 1939 anymore, and kids today grow up so much faster than they once did.This film tries to straddle the gulf between our age and the more innocent times of three quarters of a century ago. I am personally delighted that whenever they had to lean one way or another to stay balanced in that divide, they usually drift to the classical form. The battle at the end reminds us of the real wizards we had in our world, while still allowing the modern magicians to show off their craft. Just in case you need one more incentive to go, remember it hardly seems like a Sam Rami film without a little Bruce Campbell somewhere.