Tuesday, December 31, 2013

47 Ronin

This movie has apparently been sitting on a shelf for a year or so, and there were not a lot of ads or promotions for it. I guess the studio decided that their investment could not be recovered and they are protecting themselves by releasing it as counter-programing during the holidays and offering only a small amount of release support.  That's a business decision, and the investors have to go with their guts. I think the movie may have been tainted by some of those actions because it was much better than I was expecting it to be.

A little palate cleansing is nice at this time of year. I just saw six new releases of end of the year Oscar bait and Holiday cash in fare. I've been a little overwhelmed and I looked forward to something fairly mindless and action oriented, and here sat "47 Ronin" starring Keanu Reeves on my doorstep. The trailer was not promising, it emphasizes the CGI 3-D hooks of the movie. Fortunately, there is less of that element than might be expected. There are still dragons and ogres and mystical warriors, but the vast majority of the plot seems to be standard samurai action and setting.

Mr. Reeves is often criticized for his acting skills but I have found him acceptable most of the time if he is cast well.  There are not long passages of dialogue for him to spout. The exposition is done in an opening narration and through the voices of other characters. There was only one sequence where Keanu delivers lines that are portentous and even in that spot the sentences are short and to the point. If your objection is to Keanu in a love story set in the Samurai world, don't worry, that is only a small element of what takes place. In truth his character Kai is more of a co-starring role rather than lead. He is an important character, but the story is not about his journey, he is simply one of those acting to avenge their master and restore balance to the world as they see it.

The events are steeped in mysticism but are based on a real event that has been retold and embellished and changed over the years.  The actions of the warriors appear to be in keeping with the code that they lived by and this movie takes pains to emphasize that. There are frequent ceremonial rituals that are engaged in, and clothes that are associated with families and levels of service. The obligations that the ronin feel are explained by their leader and illustrated by their actions. This was one of the aspects of the movie that made it so much more appealing to me. There are several action scenes and the magical/supernatural elements do appeal to a broader audience in modern cinema, but I think this could have been effectively told without all of those components.

A couple of examples of elements that feel overdone; when the lead retainer, Ôishi seeks the banished Kai, he ends up in the set from the third "Pirates of the Caribbean". It feels strange and it is a sequence that is used to partially explain  why Keanu Reeves is not Japanese. In that sequence Kai is battling what appears to be a demonic ogre and it is a CGI creation. A traditional fight would serve the story just as well but the 3-D needs to have some weapons fly off the screen and the leaps and jumps need to be made fitting for a jaded audience. I was still entertained but I would have been just as pleased with a straight drama.

In the long run it was not great but it was good and I was entertained more than I expected to be. I hope that if you are interested you will take the time to see it in a theater. There are other films out there but if you are seeking mainstream entertainment and a entertaining action film, this is your best choice for the holiday period.

Top 25 Movie Posters of 2013 - Movies HD

Not my list but some good choices, take a couple of minutes to check them out.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

OK, I'm not drinking the Kool Aid on this one. It was basically three hours of material that you would put in a trailer and almost no story telling at all. I know that Martin Scorsese is one of our greatest living directors but he needs to be called out the same way that people are willing to call out Spielberg when he plays the same notes over and over again. This is not a movie that has anything to say and it hits no emotional points except tedium and disgust.  I can't say it is vile because the movie does not really advocate a viewpoint, but it would be easy to see how people watching this would have the same reaction as the stockbrokers who saw the Forbes article that shared the title of this film. Where do I sign up?

The movie "Wall Street" had a clearer condemnation of the excesses of greed and capitalism, this movie is simply an excuse to showcase those excesses. How many times is it necessary to see Leonardo DiCaprio pop a pill, snort cocaine up his nose or end up drooling on the floor? If your answer is less than a half dozen times, be prepared to be bored, because that sequence of events is repeated every twenty minutes in this three hour tour of late eighties/early nineties barbarism. The fact that he is often accompanied by Jonah Hill as a dweebish partner in crime should make it even less necessary to repeat the events over and over. We get it. Ladle on some nudity, including a shot of what I hope was a prosthetic Jonah Hill penis, and you begin to imagine the lengths to which this movie will go to show us the depravity of this wolf-pack. What might have been missing was any sense of the consequences to anyone other that the lead character in the schemes being played out here. I did not care much for "Blue Jasmine" earlier this year but it is an intellectual and moral giant of a film com,pared to this load of thunder signifying nothing.

Jordan Belfort heads a company designed to separate people from their money regardless of whether the investment has any merit. In fact he seems to prefer that the stocks that he peddles are so high risk because that will absolve him of blame for a lack of return by any of his customers. DiCaprio tears into the role with gusto but the part is so under written that he comes across as a stick figure of bellicose ambition. Just as there are too many sequences of debauchery; from dwarf tossing to gang bangs to gleeful fraud on a party line, there are way too many speeches. This my friends comes from a speech teacher. Belfort gets on the microphone in front of his troops almost as often as he snorts cocaine. What should come over as lunatic inspirational messaging for the sales people in the boiler room operation disguised as an investment firm, seems tired and redundant. Emotional high points can't be high if everything is delivered at the same pitch. The one time it worked in the film was in the moment that Belfort reneges on his S.E.C. agreement. He drops the hyperbole for a few seconds to make a real emotional connection with one of his employees and then dramatically returns to the hyper stylized tone he uses for most of the picture.

There is no character arc in the story. Everyone starts out as a greedy bastard and everyone end up as a greedy bastard. No one is enlightened or changed as a result of the events that take place in the time span of the movie. Some of those events make an interesting anecdote but they do not make a compelling story and when strung together for three hours they make a tedious film. I can understand why there was talk of moving this film to the early part of the next year, it needs some firm pruning and a story editor who can make some sense out of what Scorsese has shot. I think that a decision was made that the salacious nature of the film subject and the name of Martin Scorsese would be satisfactory at  bringing in film fans and there are enough critical apologists that the movie would get some awards consideration. I frankly saw DiCaprio better in a two minute scene in "The Great Gatsby" than in the whole of this film.

The kinetic energy of the filming and editing can't turn the excesses into anything other than a teaser trailer for a movie that lasts three hours. If you watch the first teaser for the film, you get everything there is in the movie. Add a few more F-bombs and a lot of nudity and drug use and there you have what so many people are claiming is a great film. It takes a lot of talented people to make a movie and the technical aspects of this film are excellent. There are some good short pieces of acting work that are quality based but they are in aid of something meaningless. The vision of the director is ultimately responsible for how the film is supposed to come across to the audience. The director here seems to be blinded by his vision of decadence, much the same way as he was by the style of film in "New York, New York". A vision can't just be the images, it needs to be emotions and insight, two things lacking in this film.  Art is subjective, so some will find this artful, I just found it loud, crass and not very entertaining.


This a a film to stir your blood if you have any sense of injustice. Regardless of your faith or political leanings, the history of harsh treatment of pregnant young women in Ireland in the first half of the last century is not a happy one. Whether it was the horror show projected by "the Magdalene Sisters" ( a film that has received much criticism for it's accuracy) or the more mundane heartlessness of the abbey shown in this film, it does appear that strict moral adhesion to a philosophy was emotionally cruel. This film is actually a pretty sad story despite the humor that is highlighted in the trailer above. There are moments of levity but at it's heart, the film concerns the indifference of a couple of institutions to the people that they serve.

The first of those institutions are the convents that took in women abandoned by their families and then misused them. I have not done enough research to know if this is just typical Catholic bashing or if this was standard operating procedure. I do believe that the film shows a strength of faith by the title character that would be hard to preserve if there was not a foundation of goodness somewhere. From a more modern perspective, unwed pregnant women are not something to be hidden away and their children taken from them. From a perspective of the times, it might seem that the children were given treatment in their best interest and that the expectation that the women would simply accept the results was normal. What is not normal is the desire to cover up past sins when relevant information is deliberately withheld. I watched and was unhappy when the children were taken, but I did not see that as an act of evil. Later in the story, when we discover that at least some officials in the hierarchy deliberately withheld information from parents and children, the shroud of evil is draped on those characters. The way the story is revealed in the film seems to be dramatically effective, regardless whether it is accurate or not.

The second institution that is criticized here is the world of journalism. The author of the book that the film is based on is portrayed as the lead character of the film. The screenwriters have not been shy about displaying his flaws as a human being. As an outcast from the privileged class of journalists at the high levels of government, he seems to have disdain for the idea of a human interest story and for anyone who would be interested in reading one. The pompous fall back of writing Russian history after a fall from grace might make him seem less of a failure from the class that he sees himself in, but it was clear that the rest of the world had little use for it. The nice part of the story is that he is forced to recognize that there is worth in the stories of others who are not czars, commissars, or members of an oligarchy.

Judi Dench is marvelous as the elderly woman seeking her lost child. She conveys a rueful manner at those times that the imagined image of her child  appears in her mind. She is also a peppy retired nurse with simple enthusiasms and a warm human nature. I know people who speak to the employees of a restaurant or hotel and make friendly conversation. They sound very much like the chipper Philomena Lee does in those sequences in Washington D.C.Where the misanthropic and jaded journalist sees a person of pitiful or limited imagination, most of us would see a warm hearted soul, willing to share something of herself and learn something from others. Although it is not the journey that will get the most attention, the story of the journalist is just as significant to the film as that of the mother trying to find the lost child from her past.

Steve Coogan plays the writer Martin Sixsmith and he does a good job of reflecting his conflicted loyalties to his journalistic roots and the feelings of his newly acquired friend Philomena Lee. The flashback sequences to the 1950s Irish Convent feel authentic in tone and they certainly look like they might have been filmed at a location where time has stood still. The film is well made and tells the story efficiently, although it does tend to take a couple of political shots, those are largely minor sucker punches that anyone could expect from the authors point of view. There are elements of the final resolution with the adopted sister and the long time lover that I thought needed to be expanded upon, but on the whole it was a rewarding experience for the acting talents and the sad set of stories that make up the whole purpose of the film.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The story idea of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a natural for movies. A quiet man leads a rich internal life compared to the mundane existence he eeks out every day. Back in 1947, the great Danny Kaye starred in a Goldwyn musical feature based on the story. There is two hours of entertainment that is fairly conventional and has a nostalgic charm to it that seems light and airy. This new take on the story is a lot more serious, it has a great contemporary song score (but it is not a musical), and despite having some darker themes, it is even more ephemeral than the Danny Kaye film.

Ben Stiller stars in and directed this mediation on loneliness and  fantasy. In this story, Walter is not really unfulfilled in his job, but he is wistful over lost opportunities and the absence of love in his life. It is his longing for romantic contact that drives him to live out a series of imaginary adventures that are then followed up with more real experiences. His interest of affection is not a glamorous music star or model, but rather a pretty co-worker, near his age with a pre-teen child. Walter's main fantasy is not unreachable but all of the scenerios in which he sees himself or later actually experience, are far out of his ability to achieve. My daughter used the phrase "magical realism", which is often associated with  the literary works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know the concept has been used to describe films as well. "Chocolt", "Amelie" and even "Groundhog Day" are examples. The most recent example of a film of this type would be "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". That film is deliberately referenced in this film, probably as a way of easing us into accepting that which is not logical but which makes the story more interesting and memorable.

The film moves quietly for the most part. It is punctuated with the kind of soft lyrical music you would find on an independent radio station or on NPR at night. The music sets the tone for the film, it is sometimes contemplative, sometimes exuberant but it is always controlled and tasteful. The movie story is the same way. there are bursts of visual craziness but they are simple passages in a longer,calmer plot line. As Walter moves from imagined adventures to real one, we begin to allow the outrageous concept of an everyday man doing the incredible, repeatedly, to be the norm. I think the music score has as much to do with this as the "magical realism" motif that the film adopts. 

If it were not for the presence of some spectacular visual sequences, which combine location work with CGI fx, this is a movie that could have been done on a shoestring budget. As it is, this is a big time studio picture directed at a holiday audience with an intention to have very broad appeal. From a story and performance point of view I think they largely succeed. Walter Mitty is an identifiable character and the woman he longs for, played by Kristen Wiig, seems a nice normal match for a romantic comedy. The fact that this is not a traditional romcom is what makes it appealing but it may also make it a target. I can imagine a world full of cynics, sharpening their knives to go after this lightweight entertainment. If you listen to them, believing the film is tired or not challenging, you will miss a nice experience at the movies. Not every film needs to achieve histrionic heights to be worthwhile.

This is a pleasant fantasy that has a few humorous moments and some beautiful imagery. The central performers are appealing and the story is told effectively. I think it might be a little long for such a souffle. Adults will be able to indulge the leisurely pace of the film, but younger audiences used to instant gratification and comic book action will probably notice the running time a little more than they should. The film has a few things to say but for the most part it just tries to show us how much life we can experience, if we just find sufficient motivation.

Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle

You know that disclaimer at the end of the movie which says that the preceding was a work of fiction and that " "The events depicted in this movie are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental."  Well here is a film where you should take that to heart. The movie is a brilliant re-creation of the time and place of the ABSCAM  story, but it is mixed with generous amounts of fictionalized romantic entanglements, sympathetic characterizations of the perps and a sense of humor that I know is not FBI approved.

This is basically an update of "The Sting", with Christian Bale and Amy Adams cast in the roles originated by Redford and Newman. Bradley Cooper is slotted into the Robert Shaw part, and the con artists are complicated good guys who may or may not be getting the drop on an FBI that is out of control. The clever way in which the film distracts us from the illusion right in front of us includes a showoff piece of supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence and a starring role for Amy Adams breasts, which certainly deserve an award for how well they are displayed here without giving away the whole trick. The craft in the story telling is very evident by the way that things ultimately make sense despite the fact that the film makers start their movie in the middle and have to work backwards. By the time the denouncement arrives, you will have been entertained and fooled for a couple of hours and you will barely notice the way the film tries to re-frame events so that the bad guy are turned into misunderstood good guys. 

It would be unfair to say too much about the plot, except that it does roughly follow the investigation into corruption by the FBI, using a phony sheik and a con man who helped plan the operation. Bale is the dumpy looking but charismatic con artist who pulls in an ambitious woman from nowhere and begins the process of fleecing a variety of marks. When Cooper shows up as a potential mark, Bale's radar starts sending out warning signals and the rest of the story begins in earnest. Everyone in the story has delusions that motivate them, Cooper sees a career and a life elevated, Adams sees herself as a completely invented new woman, Lawrence imagines a stable love life when she is incapable of real love and Bale sees "real" as something that is ultimately achievable for him after long playing at being someone. All of this takes place in the late 1970s, an era noted for it's lack of reality. Self help gurus cater to willing customers who are self deluded.  The clothes and the music and the dance steps of the times were all designed to be costumes that anyone could wear and make themselves into something they were not. The whole operation was largely defined by the use of a fake middle eastern sheik who fit right in to the glamorous perspective that the characters have of themselves.

The best example of the perspective taking that the characters (and the makers of this film ) engage in is the characterization of the Mayor of Camden, N.J.. Jeremy Renner plays the guy like a sane version of the Joe Pesci character from "Goodfellas". He is lovable, sincere, unpredictable but not a killer and he is actually motivated only by his interest in serving the people of his town. He becomes the emotional center of the movie. The "real" romance in the story is the relationship between Bale and Renner, not Lawrence or Adams at all. We hate the idea that he becomes collateral damage in the investigation. All the steam and fireworks between Adams, Cooper, Bale and Lawrence is a sideshow to the true victimization of Renner's character. The most dramatic moment in the film centers on the sudden shift in the friendship between these two men.  Like another film with an ABSCAM reference, "Donnie Brasco", we see the betrayal of one man by another who considered him a friend as the most unethical act in the story.

The music in the film highlights the moods of the era. Sometimes the events of the day are dark, calling for an even more somber version of "White Rabbit" than the Jefferson Airplane could come up with. Romantic failings are perfectly encapsulated by "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart". Exuberance and optimism are displayed in a karaoke version of "Delilah " or Jack Jones singing live in a nightclub. Duke Ellington represents the sophistication that the two leads both identify with but seem least likely to be identified by. Sexual lust is explored with a repetitive disco tune complete with moaning lyrics and everywhere in the film, the music of Jeff Lynne and ELO are used to both recall and mock the excesses of the 1970s. "Boogie Nights", "Savages", "Donnie Brasco" all use Lynne tunes to evoke a feeling from the past. Even more than the disco tunes of the day, Lynne's music recalls those turbulent days of the late seventies, and so it is ubiquitous in this film.

The rapid cross cutting climax of the film is an echo of "Goodfellas" again and the payoff will satisfy just as the results did back in 1973 for Paul and Robert. The movie is adventurous and complex and titillating without being grotesque. Everyone does stellar work in their performances and director David O. Russel along with his co-writer Eric Singer, have crafted an entertaining fiction out of a weird historical incident. Just don't be conned by the words of Irving Rosenfeld about the little guys who got caught. The Senator who was approached and reported the contact to the FBI would be a real role model. The guys who got stung, well maybe not the worst people in the world, did in fact betray our trust in them as public servants. Let's not get carried away by a great film and reinvent history.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Grudge Match

I know, I know, this movie looks like recycled crap. It is some pablum designed to milk a few bucks from undiscerning movie goers who are just looking for a way to kill a couple of hours over the holidays. I can't really disagree with that too much. It does at times feel lazy, the comedy aspects are weak and the delivery timing on the jokes is bad, really bad. So having accepted the premise that most of you started off with, let me give just a couple of reasons that you should refrain from being so harsh. Those two reasons are in fact the two stars; Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone.

Are they cashing in on old success, yes. The "Rocky" references are everywhere in this film. "Raging Bull" hangs over DeNiro's performance like a gargoyle, leering at what he has become. Even with all that baggage, both actors suit up and are game for the fight.  In the second half of the movie they start to become characters rather than caricatures. The script does not always give them enough ammunition to pull off an effective dramatic story, it does come up with a few honest moments and enough of what made us love the performers in the past to give them a pass on the flaws of this and enjoy what there is. "Grudge Match" in not a modern classic and it probably isn't worth your time in a theater, but it is not the travesty that some think it looks like and it overcomes a weak first hour comedy set up to become a mid-level adult drama, not a great drama, but one that does not embarrass us too much by watching.

The tone of the movie is all over the place. Ninety percent of the Kevin Hart sequences look like outtakes from that movie with Ice Cube that he has coming out next month. He cracks wise, makes asides out of the corner of his mouth  and contorts his face into so many clown like expressions that you worry his face might freeze like that, you know, like your Mom always warned you about. Alan Arkin almost always makes a movie better, this film is the one reason that I can think of for saying "almost". Arkin's part is underwritten and we are simply expected to use the Burgess Meridith allusion to give it the heart that it needs. His character is supposed to be so infirm at one point that he can't bath himself and then later he spends time training Stallone's character. The fact that he uses an electric wheeled cart is not enough to span the chasm between these two views.  Kim Basinger turns out to be a more important character in the story, but she is also not given enough to work with.

So the things that succeed are the stars. DeNiro manages to go back and forth between goofy aging lug and bitter resentful egotist without seeming to be schizophrenic. He does mug for the camera at times but he also plays some scenes with a nice degree of sincerity. The lost family angle is a little hokey, but DeNiro manages to sell the idea of an irresponsible self centered bastard, and the pitiful old guy in funny underwear in the very next scene. The young man who plays his son is fine but is stuck in a pretty cliche role. The little kid who turns out to be his grandchild is "TV kid" precocious, but he also is cute as hell and easy to forgive because of that. Stallone is trapped a bit in the opening sections as the introverted former boxer, that gets financially pushed into making the deal that sets up the fight rematch. We have seen this sullen, silent type in a lot of other films. Once his character reconnects with old flame Basinger, the performance feels a lot more natural even if the script does not. The idea of two men at or nearing seventy, being able to perform in the ring as they do here is far fetched but if you can get past that thought, they sell it as well as anyone could.
This poster is better than the movie.

This movie reminded me of another DeNiro misfire from 25 years ago, "we're No Angels". A comedy match with Sean Penn that does not work as a comedy and struggles to work as a redemption story. It's heart is in the right place but something along the way just did not work. "Grudge Match" actually does have a grain of a good idea in it, but the stunt casting and awkwardness of the set up undermines the more believable although cliched parts of the story. If you see it and enjoy it, good for you, just don't tell anyone because they already have preconceptions about the movie and then they will start having those same ideas about you.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. Some open gifts on Christmas Eve, many go to Mass on Christmas morning, at our house we also attend to ritual, the Christmas film screening. The decision of what film to choose depends on what is fresh and seems appropriate. I'm still not sure how we ended up in 2007 seeing Will Smith battle hyperactive zombies after a plague, it must simply be timing. Last year we knew all the way back to the summer months that we would see "Les Misérables" on Christmas day. The trailer was the perfect bait for us. Well this trailer also sold us early on, it is the concept of the film and the stars that made "Saving Mr. Banks" our planned on Christmas film experience since we first heard of it. The story of how Walt Disney convinced a reluctant P.L. Travers to give him the rights to the character of Mary Poppins seems a natural for a family holiday film. Two words, "It is".

There is a bit of a caution warning to begin with. The story does have immense charm and humor, and there are moments of delight, but all of those moments seem more meaningful because around the edges is a dark cloud of family history that is the source of Traver's reserve. Those moments are at times sad, frightening and they might be bewildering to the very youngest family members. I can't imagine that anyone will be traumatized, but you should go in forewarned because the back story of P.L. Traver's family is not ultimately  a happy one. The story is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards from 1901 to 1961. Those transitions are made in very effective cinematic techniques that are not subtle and may put off film hipsters that object to heavy handed story telling but they will please traditionalists with the craft in which they are interjected into the story. 

Emma Thompson plays Travers as a truculent woman who is unable to be appeased by the most logical appeals a professional film story teller might make. She comes off as unpleasant and dour. At first you might be inclined to wonder how it is that this woman is responsible for the marvelous character she has created. It seems that the performance is to be all frowns and facial ticks conveying unhappiness. As the story develops though, it is clear that there is a trans-formative process occurring. She never becomes cuddly but she definitely becomes human. Here there are some obvious Hollywood tools employed, including a tentative friendship with a wise minor character that delivers some positive energy despite the negativity flowering off on Thompson. It helps that this character is played by the talented Paul Giamatti, who can convey patience and kindness with his eyes as well as anyone can. There is also a very obvious moment when a musical breakthrough occurs and it is shown in a extremely conventional way; a way that completely works and should bring a huge smile to your face even if you don't like being manipulated. 

It is hard to imagine better casting than Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Even though his voice and appearance might not automatically make you think of Disney, his warm demeanor and the audiences personal history with him as an actor, create a wonderful shortcut to the man that the film wants us to believe Disney was. There are only a couple of hints dropped at the tough minded businessman he was capable of being, for instance his reluctance to invite Travers to the premiere of her own film, but with the force of nature that Thompson represents Travers as, we need the Uncle Walt image to balance the story. Also in the cast are Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, the genius team behind the song of the Mary Poppins film. Novak gets some laughs for daring to be honest with Mrs. Travers and Schwartzman gets to play the piano and vamp the songs in rehearsal/story meetings. Bradley Whitford is Don DaGradi, the screenwriter who must work with the team to massage the story to Travers liking. Whitford is a personal favorite from his time on "The West Wing", but he is also a skilled comic actor who helps these scenes work both in their comedy aspects but later in their dramatic moments as well. 

The director is John Lee Hancock, who did two terrific sports themed films in the last dozen years or so, including directing Sandra Bullock to her Oscar win in "The Blind Side". It is quite possible he will have overseen another Oscar nominee in Emma Thompson's Travers. He has effectively used the same sentimental palate that Steven Spielberg uses, including warm colors and camera shots that evoke emotional isolation for children. I was especially impressed with the screenplay of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, who between them do not have any credits suggesting that they could accomplish what they have done here. This is a story that turns dark occasionally and the mixture of the light and dark are matched very effectively. Hanks and Thompson are both well served in the last third of the film, when the pieces start to form a more complete picture and allow us to see the complexity behind then difficulty of the characters. I don't know if Walt would have approved of his monologue to travers as he reveals his ability to identify with her, but Hanks sells it and it is very nicely written.

Maybe the best teaser poster of the year.
I have never made it a secret from any of my readers that I am a sentimentalist. The idea of this movie is enough to bring a tear to my eye. In the last twenty minutes I gave over to it completely and I am not ashamed to say that my face would have been soaked if not for the discrete presence of a handkerchief in my hand. This movie did for me exactly what I wanted it to, it intrigued me, entertained me and moved me. While it may have done so at times with a heavy hand, I frankly don't care. Leaving a film with indifferent emotions and only an intellectual experience is not a goal I seek from films. I like when my brain is stimulated, but I also like when my heartstrings are pulled. This movie did enough of the former not to be insulting, and enough of the later for me to treasure it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Die Hard/ Die Hard 2

Last night I saw "Die Hard" for easily the 50th time at least, but it was only the second time that I saw it on the big screen. It was part of a double feature (along with Die Hard 2) at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood sponsored by the American Cinematheque. I don't know that there needs to be much explanation here, "Die Hard" has been a family favorite since it came out. It is the same exact age as my youngest daughter who was also released on the world that week in 1988. It is second only to "Jaws" in her mind (although "Lawrence of Arabia" is rapidly climbing). We had a great time and it is on our annual Christmas viewing list. Some have challenged the right of "Die Hard" to be seen as a Christmas movie.Clearly the Cinematheque agrees with me.  Last year there was a Great Debate posting on Fogs Movie Reviews over that issue. I have included my comment below as the post for last nights film. (Die Hard 2 does not deserve the same defense as a Christmas movie)

Fogs my man, a valiant effort but in the long run futile. You have measured the indicators of Christmas in the film, but you have left untouched the themes of Christmas that make this a Christmas Movie. Let me get to those in just a moment. I would like to start with a sweeping refutation of the material you have presented. The evidence is excellent and I commend you on your attention to detail. My admiration for your willingness to take the time and count all the references, measure them and put them in a proportional context is very high. (The Commando Screen Shots are still your own personal gold standard but this comes close).
The fault is not in the evidence but in the reasoning. You never give us a standard by which we can measure the “Christmasness” of a movie. Does it have to have a fifty percent component? That would eliminate almost all Christmas films from consideration. Maybe it is the presence of key icons such as Santa, Rudolf, or God that make a movie a Christmas film. If that is the standard than Die Hard meets two of those requirements, the Santa Hat and Ho-Ho-Ho reference takes care of the secular element.
God appears in multiple sentences where the name Jesus or God are invoked, although not in a very Christmas like manner (Oh Christ, you know what I mean). If a percentage is significant enough to spice the movie, it may very well become a Christmas film much as the addition of a small amount of cinnamon or peppermint makes a latte a Christmas drink at Starbucks or a Christmas cookie in a stocking. 11.7% would be more than sufficient to render “Die Hard” a Christmas film.
The true reason that Die Hard is a Christmas film is the theme of the characters. The main characters have the same thread of redemption in them that “A Christmas Carol” has. The setting of the story at Christmas encourages the deep questioning of our selves much like the Christmas spirit encourages us all to ask why we are not as charitable and kind all the year long. The Christmas season provokes a contemplative thought process that might otherwise be dismissed during the rest of the year.
We have three characters that represent redemption, the kind that is life affirming and important especially during the holiday season. While redemption is certainly a theme in other films, it is the Christmas season that provokes the redemption of our characters here. Primary among these characters is our lead, John McClane himself. He is using the holiday as a justification to reach out to his wife by traveling all the way across the country to see his family in L.A.. The coke sniffing by Ellis and the casual workplace sex going on in the offices are a reminder that people in the work place take advantage of others during the holiday season. For many at that party it will be the only holiday spirit that they get. You know Ellis is not going home to cookies and carols with his family after the party. It is clear he’d like to be going home with some Holly wrapped around his tree. John sees this and gets angry, which drives a wedge between he and his wife just when his very actions of coming out to the coast started to bridge their gaps. Later, he does the best he can to save Ellis from himself, despite having plenty of motivation to be happy that he will be out of the picture. That is one of many redemptive acts. He gives Hans a chance on the roof, even though he doesn’t give him a loaded gun. Patience with a stranger is another act of redemption. His devotion to his wife is incredibly strong despite their estrangement, this is another. He consoles a fellow police officer that he has never seen, and takes him to his heart because Powell needs the support just as much as he needs Powell’s. That is an act of mutual redemption. All of this takes place during the Christmas season but more than that is influenced by the spirit of the season. No such redemption is being offered in the first sequel which is also set at Christmas, but for which you will not find many if any adherents of the premise that it is a Christmas movie.
Powell and Holly are the other characters who seek redemption and gain it because of the Holiday. Powell, gets involved in the whole set up because he was willing to work Christmas Eve. A sacrifice in part that is certainly brought on by his guilt over being a “desk jockey”. His reason for being behind a desk most of the time is tragic, the kind of tragedy that Christmas story themes are designed to help us confront. (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, One Magic Christmas as illustrations). His holiday redemption is completed with his restoration to real cop by helping McClane in the tower, and rescuing them with the same act that had condemned him in the first place. Holly has let her home life suffer for her vanity at work and her pride in disagreeing with her husband. She stands up to Hans, that is an act of courage, she is given hope by the frustration of the terrorist/criminals, that is a restoration of her faith. Finally, she reclaims her married name at the end when she is being introduced to Powell, that is the sign of redemption in her marriage, much like Jimmy Stewart crying “Merry Christmas” after seeing what life would be like if he had never been born.
Hans and Thornburg are the Marley and Potter equivalents in this story. Each is selfish and indifferent to the suffering of others. Each is given opportunities to act in a manner that is consistent with the spirit of the holiday, and each rejects those chances. As a result, they each get a comeuppance that is commensurate with their acts. Hans gets shot and dropped off a building, and Thornburg is publicly humiliated. The spirit of Christmas in the form of a naughty or nice list is kept by the outcome of the story.
We are all on the nice list because this movie was left in our Christmas stocking for us. I know that we would not be discussing it here and now, if the Christmas theme were not an essential part of the plot. The very fact that we are having this discussion at Christmas time, 24 years after the movie came out is also proof of it’s lineage as a Christmas film.
You may still disagree if you like but to do so may put you on Santa’s naughty list. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cinematic Katzenjammer Not So Sectret Santa: Black Narcissus (1947)


Whenever you volunteer to participate in a Secret Santa Exchange, you run the risk of displeasing the person that you choose from the pool. Even worse, you could be subjected to a gift from someone that does not know you well and dumps a gift on you that might only be appropriate for a White Elephant party exchange. When you make it a movie review exchange, the danger is heightened, after all, someone can't just shrug "Thanks" and put the gift aside and ignore it. Here, you have to live with the gift for a while. A two hour film takes up that much time, if you are ordering it on line you may be paying for the privilege of watching your gift. Then you have to figure out what to say about it. If you hate it, that might offend someone who only was trying to share something they love and instead of discovering another friend online, you have created an enemy. All the same, with a film review/swap, I still think you should honestly express your views on the gift, that is what someone else was looking for.

So far in participating in the Secret Santa Reviews on the Cinematic Katzenjammer, I have been lucky. No films that test my patience, morality or my stomach. I'm not sure how Nick decides to pair up films with participants. If he uses a random process then I have been under Fortune's  good star, if as editor, he screens films and matches them with people that he thinks might fit well with the move, then Good Job Nick. I was pleased to receive my assignment and even more pleased when I opened it up and examined it closely, it is a cinematic gem. "Black Narcissus" is a movie I have heard about for decades and never got around to seeing. Much like a book that has been assigned to you rather than pulled off the shelf and borrowed under your own will, a movie can feel like a chore because it is expected of you to have seen it. Like "The Great Gatsby" or "1984" in high school, "Black Narcissus" turns out to be something that will stick with me because I liked it rather than it being a mere assignment to get out of the way.

One of the reasons that a film could stay out of your reach is a lack of familiarity with any of its premise in the first place. I'd heard this referred to as a mystery, as a cultural piece, as a woman's film and as a sexual Gothic melodrama. Without a handle on the subject matter or story, it was easy to pass by for something more familiar, that was my mistake. As usual here on the KAMAD blog, I will be staying far away from spoilers. I don't want to recount the story scene by scene for the readers, I always try to share my impressions and emotions without repeating the whole movie. However, since my own reluctance to see the film for a number of years has been a result of ignorance, let me just give a quick set up of the events and plot. An order of nuns in India have obtained the right to open a school/hospital/convent in the abandoned palace of an Indian general's family. A younger nun is given authority to take a half dozen sisters and act as the Mother Superior in the new and remote location. The local population is primitive by Western standards and suspicious of outsiders and new ways. The agent for the General making the donation is an expatriate Englishman who appears to be very unsympathetic to the  plan for somewhat selfish reasons. All of the women are chosen to participate in the endeavor for personal characteristics they display, and all of them have different reactions to the situation they find themselves in.

With that set up out of the way, let me explain the features of the film that I most enjoyed and that I think would be appealing to other film lovers. There are three distinct pleasures that I derived from my screening of the film; it is breathtakingly beautiful, it is overtly sexual (at least for 1947) and it is freakishly weird in character development. It deserves it's reputation as a classic film, I just don't know that everyone will know why without having a little better peek at it.

This is a film set in India, in the Himalayan regions, and it was shot entirely in England. You will not be aware of how rooted to the backlot this feature is. The cinematography, lighting and background mattes will convince you that you are on a mountain precipice in a remote location in India. The sets are constructed and decorated in such a way as to suggest they are ancient, neglected rooms or sparse regulated spiritual environments. The outdoor shots look expansive and convey a feeling of isolation despite being on the Pinewood Studios lot.

Michael Powell, who shares credit with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, is known for his visual style. He was responsible for the look of "The Thief of Baghdad"  and made "The Red Shoes", one of the most iconic color films of the early part of cinema history. This movie revels in colors and camera angles and lighting that are startlingly beautiful and interesting at the same time. Along with legenday cameraman Jack Cardiff, Powell gives us some vertigo inducing views of not just mountains but dining halls, chapels and even people.
The white habits of the nuns crossing against exotic colors creates an otherworldly atmosphere from the beginning. The first shots of the film are of an office with a ceiling fan, but the view seems to be from a level higher than the ceiling fan itself. There are several points in the film where the characters are viewed from above as if we are spying on them under a microscope, observing their actions and noting the characteristics of each cell as it floats across the slide that has been inserted. These shots are well designed and they don't come off as a directorial flourish but rather as a natural way of observing something that is foreign but at the same time familiar.

A key location in the film is the bell that the nuns use to announce the start of the day to the valley of natives below them. It is located on an outcrop from the palace, right on the edge of a precipice that would intimidate even seasoned base jumpers. The view is spectacular, but as I have already said, it is an illusion. The location is not a mountain top and what we see is largely special photographic effects, but they will put to shame much of the CGI wizardry that now dominates film making.

It is not just the sets and scenery that make this film visually spectacular. The lighting of characters and the movement of wind through the palace is also evocative. The mystery of the women and the location is heightened by small touches of color or choices of perspective. This is frankly one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It is almost possible to envision each frame as it's own stand alone image, deserving of a place on your wall or in a coffee table book of photographs.

While I am not quite done mentioning the look of the film, I want to transition to the sexual nature of the movie. A film featuring nuns that was made in 1947 may not seem like a rich subject for erotic psychology but this film is loaded with references and images that seem to scream out "SEX" in spite of the subdued way in which the story progresses. The palace that the sisters take over, is referred to as a palace, but it was actually the location of the harem for the General's grandfather. He kept his women there and the caretaker makes a passing comment that it is now to be occupied again by women. The decaying but opulent interior is splashed with erotic murals from Indian culture. It might have been the first thing that nuns could be expected to do but to cover or paint over them. It never happens. In many of the interactions that take place during the story, the murals remain in the background. When the nuns arrive at the palace, they are greeted by the General's agent Mr. Dean. He is an Englishman who has nearly gone native. He is barely dressed each time he encounters the sisters, his shirt opened across his chest and his legs exposed by shorts. He seems to resent that the women are unavailable to him because of their vows, but makes it clear that he has a particular need for women. His suggestion that the education of the young women of the district would be beneficial to him carries with it a strange sexual undertone. He lingers over a piece of tapestry with an erotic scene painted on it as he verbally fences with the new Mother Superior. While several of the nuns
are older, two are young enough to be attractive to a man in his late thirties or early forties. Deborah Kerr plays the tense new
Superior, a woman who has come to the order as a release from the pain of a failed love affair that left her a marked woman in her native Irish land. We never get the full story behind Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, but it is strongly suggested that she is an emotionally damaged woman of loose morals who is seeking celibacy as a way of righting her mind. All of the sisters are effected by the location. It is hinted that even the oldest and most down to earth nun, Sister Phillipa has allowed erotic thoughts to distract her from her duties as the gardener for the convent.

A young Jean Simmons, plays a native of the district who appears to be orphaned and also something of a vixen. She is deposited with the sisters as a way of keeping her out of Mr. Dean's bedroom, which he surprisingly does not want her occupying. Her presence stirs the pot of eroticism even more. In a couple of scenes she seductively vamps in front of a mirror or dances with a lewd twerk in her hips in the former bathing lounge of the brothel nee palace.
In a summary of the story that I read on line, the author suggested that the "Young General", the nephew of their benefactor and an interloper in this world of women, has seduced the young Kanchi. That perspective ignores that she is part of the erotic background of the location and it is her effect on him that produces his action. All of the sensuality becomes too much for some of the characters and they become unhinged in very different ways by its continuing influence. It is at this point that the story becomes a macabre tale of unrequited love and madness.

 The characters frankly become even more strange than they started out as. The atmosphere starts to close in on them and the haunting location and images spark desires and tip egos in ways that seem melodramatic but understandable. We have been set up for some of these elements by the winds whispering constantly through the film. The way the habits move of their own accord suggests that the women are not quite in control of their own behaviors.
The intensity of emotional turmoil is easy to read on the face of Sister Ruth. Her eyes are dark and terrifying from the beginning of their time on top of the mountain. As she lurks in corners and spies on the comings and goings of Mr. Dean, she becomes more and more lost. There is a particularly startling scene in which she is
revealed to us as having made a significant decision about her life. She doesn't have to say anything, all that has to happen is a door opens and we see that sexually repressed madness has taken her over. While Sister Clodagh may have sexual stirrings triggered by Mr. Dean and the palace, we know that she has kept her sanity. Once again the visual nature of the movie shows us what power the eroticism takes as we see an even graver change in the eyes of Ruth.
We have oversexualized teen Lolitas, and handsome exotic men mixed into a strange location in a foreign land, all of which is layered on top of nuns who have taken vows of celibacy but who are still subject to human frailties. It all adds up to a unique film experience which will haunt you with it's breathtaking beauty and strange story. "Black Narcissus" deserves it reputation as a great film from post war England, and it was a stocking stuffer that I am sorry I left in the toe for so long. Whoever was my Secret Santa, I'd like to thank you for the push you gave me toward this memorable gift. Merry Christmas to all.


Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I keep promising myself that I am going to stop going to midnight screenings and spare myself the pain of the following day. I also keep breaking that promise and justifying it to myself with all kinds of excuses. Last nights excuse was simple, both of my daughters wanted to go to the double feature of The two Hobbit films and the second premiered at midnight. At 27 and 25, they still have their Dad wrapped around their fingers. When they were small kids and we lived in an apartment in Alhambra, I would read them a chapter of the Hobbit as a bedtime story every night. We must have read the whole book three or four times and it remains one of those proud achievements of fatherhood that I introduced them to that form of literature  when they were only four or five years old. Even though they were not as enthusiastic about the first movie "An Unexpected Journey" as they had been about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they still want the movies to work and there are still scenes in our heads that we want to see depicted on screen, forty feet high and seventy feet wide. We also craved hearing a voice that we had nightmares over when they were young; the dragon Smaug. This new chapter in the Hobbit series suffers from the same bloat that it's predecessor did, it takes a long time for some events to happen, some events that are not needed intrude on the story and sequences of action often go on longer than needed. That having been said, we all had a marvelous time and I at least enjoyed the film immensely in spite of the story excesses. I was happy to be in a theater, and I was there for over six hours with two of my favorite three people in the world. The film kept me awake and involved, even though I had been up since 4:30 in the morning on Thursday. If it can keep me awake when all my senses would normally be screaming to shut down, the film must do some things right.

To start on a positive note, let's focus on the key scene in the movie. The one piece that everyone is anticipating and needs to work for the film to have any chance. Last year, the riddle game with Gollum was the scene that everyone loved and allowed them to embrace the film even though it has flaws. This year the conversation is more dangerous and erudite. Bilbo Baggins, novice burglar, confronts "Smaug", the dragon responsible for wiping out the dwarf kingdom of Erebor as well as Dale, the nearby town of men that now lays in ruin at the foot of The Lonely Mountain.  Many of us remember the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit from the 1970s. The dragon was voiced by one of the great pieces of voice casting ever, Richard Boone. His sonorous and gravelly voice fit the serpent like qualities of the character perfectly. His self aggrandizing tone matched the ego of the beast and revealed his weakness. Boone is long gone and when the films were finally announced we played a game; name the actor who would best voice Smaug. At our house we were three for three, all of us picked one voice that we thought would be perfect, and it is not the one that was cast. Imagine our disappointment when we saw that Benedict Cumberbatch would voice the dragon and not our unanimously agreed upon Peter O'Toole. Of course at that point we were not familiar with Mr. Cumberbatch and his vocal talents. I still have not seen his Holmes, but he was excellent in "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and so I had high hopes. He manages to live up to those hopes very well. He brings menace and temperment to the right boil to make Smaug more than a monster but a real character as well. Check out the last thiry seconds of the trailer below to get a preview.

In addition to being well played vocally, the dragon is vividly realized in a visual medium. He moves convincingly and looks very realistic. In one of the many departures from the book, there is a long confrontation sequence and chace between Smaug and the troop of dwarfs seeking his destruction. Like several  other sequences in the film, it goes on a little long and is not entirely needed but it is cleverly put together and entertaining to watch.

A second example of the weakness of the film is the long chase of the dwarfs as they escape from imprisonment in a elf kingdom by riding in barrels. What was whimsical and somewhat comic in the children's book that I read to my kids, becomes an elaborate set piece featuring a violent battle scene at a water gate and then an extended hunt and chase battle along the path of the river by which the barrels are returned to Laketown. The sequence is well staged and has some amazing stunts and visual tricks to show us but it goes on much too long and it could easily be taken out of the film since it does nothing to advance the narrative and only exits to make this an action film on the same level as the movies from ten years ago. Conversely, the interlude at the beginning of this chapter of the trilogy, features the character "Beorn" and it goes by much too quickly. It was a good change of pace moment in the book but it does not get a chance to allow us to reacquaint with the band of adventurers before they are quickly pursued into Mirkwood. The pace of the film is constantly moving quickly, which is surprising since the story is so padded. For a nearly three hour film, it never seems to slow down enough to take in the events or personalities that we encounter. They are interludes between the long fight sequnces that have been interjected in a half dozen places in the story.

If your favorite parts of the "Lord of the Rings" films were the battle at Helms Deep or the War at the gates of Gondor, than this film will be perfect for you. Orcs and Goblins crawl through forests and towns and attack at nearly every opportunity. There are flashback sequences and parallel story lines and there is even a romantic subplot thrust into this film. I can say that even though the tie in to the later stories is not needed here, it was actually assembled very well. Strings of connection have been forged where none existed before but they are not so much grafted on as weaved into the story. The scale of the movie is much larger than the original book required, and it dilutes the product even though it is prepared well and cooked expertly. Gandalf is a much more central figure in this version of "The Hobbit" and sometimes that means that Bilbo gets a little lost. The actors are all playing their parts with great fervor and some of the dwarfs are finally stepping out of the crowd and establishing a little more personality distinction. The scenes in the Kingdom of the Mirkwood elves do feel like the drama is being ratcheted up rather than building naturally. On the other hand, the sequence in Laketown, except for the orc attack, feels much more like a story that is telling itself rather than being forced on us.  Bard as a character is perfectly cast and his somber demeanor fits with the story. I did think his imprisonment made very little sense and there are a couple of similar glitches in other places as well.

This time I splurged and we saw this in 3D IMAX with the 48fps speed film. I understand the criticism that it got last year and there were several spots in which the high speed shooting makes the picture less cinematic and more obviously set based. Some elements look much better with the high speed film but others look almost videotaped rather than filmed. There did not seem to be any consistent reason that this was true. It was not as if all of the action scenes worked but the exposition scenes looked off. Both types of sequences worked and failed at different points and I am hard pressed to say why although I can say I noticed it. For a story that has been building to a confrontation with a dragon, it ends a bit abruptly. This will certainly make the start of the next and final chapter more memorable but it left the audience a little short this morning. The critical praise from the Lord of the Rings films was deserved, it was an intricate story that was massively complex and stitched together in an effective way. The reason the Hobbit films have not had the same kind of support is not a lack of talent, vision or skill. The reason these movies are not as revered as the other series comes down to the fact that this simple story is being reverse engineered. As Peter Drucker said:
“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

JAWS Diorama

Final Cut 2013 - A Cinema Tribute

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Court Jester 1955

Time marches on and history sometimes fades into vague memory and then is forgotten. If I asked anyone in my classes if they know who Danny Kaye was, my guess is that a couple of hands would go in the air and the other twenty-five would look at me blankly. This is no fault of their own, there are so many good films to catch up on, and if you are a fan of the Golden age of Hollywood, you probably want to absorb some film noir, or catch up on classic westerns that you have missed. Heck, maybe you would even want to see some of the socially relevant classics of that time period; films like "On the Waterfront", "Gentleman's Agreement", or "The Best Years of our Lives". Who could fault you with so many wonderful choices? I don't ever want this continuing column to be about scolding people for the films they have not yet found. My purpose is always to bring attention to a movie that I want others to share and enjoy. While Danny Kaye starred in dozens of movies and did television up till his death in 1987, it is this movie that makes me most love him. It is time for me to share the love.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


A video review for a pretty standard Action film. Hope you enjoy. Also on KAMAD.
Not much to write about, but if you are interested I have a view things to say.