Monday, June 16, 2014

Billy Wilder Blogathon: The Lost Weekend


I'm stepping out of the format for this blog to participate in a blogathon for Once Upon a Screen. Aurora has invited us to post in any way we would like on a Billy Wilder film. I was lucky in that no one had yet selected Wilder's first Oscar winning project, "The Lost Weekend". Maybe the reason that it had not been chosen yet is that unlike "Double Indemnity" which came out the year before, "The Lost Weekend" has not aged well. It does not fit into a well loved genre like "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Blvd.", it is not a beloved comedy featuring another Jack Lemmon performance, and it is as straight forward a drama as you might expect from any other film maker rather than Wilder. There are some very nice elements to it but it but it is also over the top and melodramatic and it sells out at the end, these are not characteristics of a Wilder film.

The previous film that Wilder wrote and directed was the film noir featuring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. At the end of that picture, both of the protagonists are dead and the film is bleak. In "The Lost Weekend" we are shown how miserable and devastating alcoholism can be. Ray Milland gets to act his ass off because there are sequences that are truly harrowing. When the end comes, and the gun is in his hand and the bullets are in the gun, Wilder pulls back and and gives us an exit from the bleakness. Maybe that's how the book that this is based on ends, I don't know, I never read it, but it sure feels like an ending that would come from studio notes rather than following naturally from what we spent the earlier hundred minutes contemplating.

Wilder appears to have chosen the book to make a movie out of because he wanted to work on the topic of alcoholism after having worked with Raymond Chandler on "Double Indemnity." Alcoholism is the subject of this film but it is not the vague drinking done by most film characters in the forties. Boogie drinks to forget Ingrid Bergman, that's sad but romantic. There is nothing vaguely romantic about the way Don Birnam drinks. He is compulsive and he is a mean drunk. He is not a genial soul who is released from his limitations by drink. The rye that he is fond of is cheap and it's purpose is intoxication and it releases a man with monstrous tendencies. When drunk, he ignores two different women who are flinging themselves at him. When lacking funds to pay for a drink he loses any sense of self respect, begging, stealing and generally being an ass to others. Sometimes he can wax poetic in a state of inebriation, but he can never remember how to put the word together again when he is sober. As a writer, the blank page mocks his lack of sober creativity.


The problem with the film is that it is so melodramatic. Don sweats out his time as he waits for the next drink. He visualizes singers on stage as dancing versions of the top coat he left in the cloakroom that has his bottle in it. He raises his voice and bugs out his eyes so often that you would think he would get sick from doing that, those facial gestures would become a cause rather than a symptom of his illness. Don has a girlfriend who is trying to help him and a brother who is an enabler at first and then a proponent of tough love. Each of them has over the top moments in which their acting styles seem unnatural. Part of this is the times. Actors were less naturalistic at this point and combined with the subject matter it feels like it is too much. There is almost no subtlety in any of the performances.


Milland practically crawls through the scenes where he is trying to find an open pawnbroker to dump his typewriter to get cash for another drink. Maybe it is accurate and for the times acceptable, but the fact that all the pawn shops were closed for Yom Kippur felt like an artifact from a different age. When he is reduced to "borrowing" from a woman's handbag, we are not sympathetic, we want this bum to get slammed hard. That he does get some comeuppance turns out to be another throwback. This is admittedly the first film to deal with this topic in a serious manner, and the idea of the DTs is scary. When trapped in the alcohol wing of Bellevue, Don gets a second hand look at what is coming for him. The screaming thrashing patient in the corner foreshadows but does so so obviously that it takes away some drama. When Don's turn finally shows up, it is a horrifying vision undercut by a creaky visual effect of a flying bat. When the bat strikes however, then the movie takes on the real dark tone it has been working so hard to deserve.


There are some great choices by Wilder in terms of storytelling technique. The tight close up on the moisture rings from his different drinks shows us the passage of time without requiring more than a single shot. In another visual shot using a glass of alcohol, we are pulled below its smooth surface into the world of intoxication. There is a beautiful moment in cinematography when the liquid in a hidden bottle refracts some light and reveals itself to a frantic Don who has blacked out on where he hid the bottle in the first place. The story is constructed of a couple of bookends that take place in what would then have been the present, but much of the exposition occurs in a long segment that is essentially an extended flashback. This is the part where the film is most like a Billy Wilder picture.

lost weekend poster

This was the first of three "message" pictures in a row to be named Best Picture. It was startling for its time but now seems somewhat tame in it's approach. There are dark themes in the story that fit the mold of some of Wilder's great non-comedies, but there is  that heartwarming sellout at the end. Most people will be glad for the ray of hope, but people who saw Joe Gillis floating in the pool at the start of one film, and Tyrone Power stabbed by Marlene Dietrich at the end of another, will wonder why Ray Milland's brains were not on the bathroom mirror.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gumby Fest 2014

In what I hope will be a long new tradition, Glendora hosted Gumby Fest at the Civic Center on Saturday.  It was a day long celebration of everything "Gumby". I first became aware of it through a banner strung across the entry intersection of our uptown village shopping district. Those of you not familiar with my adopted town of Glendora, should know that it a quiet little bedroom community about thirty miles east of Downtown Los Angeles. It celebrated it's centennial in 2011 and for much of that time was most widely noted for the citrus industry. Of course in the last fifty years there has not been an orange farm or lemon ranch in sight. Just families trying to raise suburban kids in Southern California.  There were some rock stars who lived in the town, and Sally Rand and Woody Strode both called it home as well. The Surfaris originated here as well. It was news to me though, that the Art Clokey Studio where the Gumby shows of the 60s and 70s was produced was located just a few blocks from my home.

Gumby had originated at NBC championed by Thomas W. Sarnoff, the son of legendary TV executive David Sarnoff. Created by Art and Ruth Clokey in the fifties, the cartoon show was a success in it's first incarnation on the network. Later as an independent production, more cartoons were added to the series and those were produced in the local studio. The studio also produced the "Davey and Goliath" shorts for the Lutheran Church, using the same stop motion, clay animation techniques. A revival of Gumby in the early 1980s after being parodied by Eddie Murphy on SNL, produced an additional one hundred cartoon shorts that played on Nickelodeon. Even kids who have not seen a Gumby cartoon know the character because of the toys. This event was designed to celebrate the character, the studio, the creators and the town that spawned this great cultural artifact.

When my visit began, we arrived at the back of City Hall and immediately encountered a series of "eazy up" booths for community based programs. There was a Nature Conservancy, and the Library Outreach, and Kids Summer programs. The Chamber of Commerce and the City also had booths with brochures and flyers about local events. Out on the lawn were several local businesses, also making an effort to participate by showing products and selling services. My favorite local business for nearly twenty years is Richard's Framing. They have done all of my James Bond Lithographs and several other pieces for us as well and they were represented with a nice Gumby reproduction that I neglected to get a photo of. There were several specialized catering trucks serving great foods to make the carnival atmosphere even more appealing.

As we listened to several young local rock bands play and we walked around the plaza, it was not exactly clear how we should proceed, and then I found the information booth and learned that for the presentations you had to obtain a ticket for each discussion being held in the large seminar room of the library. We had missed the LAIKA Studios presentation, which is too bad because I am looking forward to their next feature "The Box Trolls", but we did slip in just in time for the presentation by"Stoopid Buddies Stoodio" who generates "Robot Chicken" and other animated fare. The five animators who spoke were all inspired by Gumby and they did some comparison talk and showed a couple of short features that they thought fit the mold of Gumby.
  It was very interesting and they answered questions for a lot of people who were interested in animation, including some very young kids who are using frame capture technology on some of their gaming systems to create their own pieces.They were very encouraging and I was impressed with the quality of questions from the audience. We also encountered one bold young man who promoted his own web site during the audience Q and A.We got in just after the introductions so I can't identify these guys for you but they did a great job.

Tickets for the next two presentations were "sold out" (which is a strange term to use since no one paid for any ticket), but we quickly snatched up tickets for the 2:00 presentation "Meet the Gumby Gang". We had a large gap until that discussion so we went down into the Glendora library, where in one of the community rooms a traveling Gumby Museum had been erected. There were old toys on display and several diorama scenes from Gumby Adventures. On the walls were a series of pictures through the years describing the creation of and the creators of Gumby and Davey and Goliath. I wanted to take pictures to post but a sign asked us to refrain from doing so, and I did, at least after I saw the sign. Here is one picture that I took of a photo wall before I realized the no photography policy. I hope it does not offend any of the organizers and if it does, let me know and I will take it down.

We went off site (home) for lunch and came back an hour before our presentation was to start. Part of that time we spent watching clips of Gumby programs and a couple of shorts from the fifties. We would like to have finished the live action/animated "Sound of Thunder" short by William Stromberg, but there was a line up to get into the afternoon event. 

Joe Clokey, the son of Ruth and Art and the keeper of the Gumby flame, presided over the two presentations that we missed and he was a big part of the final presentation of the day "Meet the Gumby Gang". This was a panel discussion involving almost a dozen former employees of the Clokey Studios who had worked on the Sixties era Gumby episodes, the late sixties early seventies Davey and Goliath shorts and the 1980's revival of Gumby. To say the panel was distinguished is to understate the situation. Animators who were major contributors to "The Nightmare Before Christmas", "James and the Giant Peach", "Coraline", dozens of commercials and such non-animated fare as "Star Wars", "Terminator", "The Matrix", and a dozen or more other major motion pictures  regaled us with stories of their formative years at the Clokey studio and their start in the entertainment industry.

I wish I could relate every story that each one told and make it as interesting as they did but it is beyond my skills and memory to properly attribute all of the information to the right person. On the left side of the picture above, wearing the hat is Joe Clokey, who knew most of these guys as a child and asked some interesting questions and made some relevant clarifications when information got a bit conflated. Next to him is Norm DeCarlo, a bay area animator who worked on the 80s revival and subsequent Henry Sellick projects and owns his own studio. He had several dry comments to add to the conversation and frequently inserted a wry observation here and there to what others shared. Next to him is Chris Peterson who also was deeply involved in the 80's revival and who has contributed to LAIKA Studios productions and was part of the team that was Oscar nominated for the 1996 short film "Carhead".  We did not get to hear much from him during the regular presentation, but in the Q and A, he got the opportunity to tell a couple of amusing stories about meeting Clokey and discovering how determined and single-minded Art could be.

Harry Walton started with Clokey Productions in 1968, and as a young kid always wanted to be a part of animation production. He subsequently worked for Cascade Pictures, Coast Effecxts Associates, ILM, Tippet Studio, Skellington Productions, DreamQuest Images, Imageworks and others. He was one of the old timers who could speak to the period when the studio was located here in Glendora and talked in detail about the work environment and the techniques that the studio used to produce their short films.
Seated next to him was Doug Beswick, who started with Clokey a year before Walton, in 1967. He was known at the time as one of the "serious"guys at the studio but he told a charming story about being embarrassed by acting up and ending up in a silly situation confronted by the very serious Ruth Clokey. He has forty years of visual effects work in his background, including creating the armature of "the Terminator". Rich Zim's first job after graduating college was the Gumby animation production in the 1980s. He was quite irreverent and spoke of the falderal that took place at the studio, one episode of which left a piece of clay in Ruth Clokey's drinking water in a mysterious accident. He is another contributor to the Sellick films and directed an episodes of the PJs, the first stop motion series created for TV, featuring Eddie Murphy.

Recognizable by his mane of silver white hair is seven time Academy Award winning makeup artist Rick Baker. He was interested in make-up as a kid but was looking for any kind of job when he got connected by his father who was making a delivery and accidentally ended up at the Clokey Studio in Glendora. His dad suggested that he try going there for a job. So Rick showed up with some of the work he had done and figures he had put together, and they put him to wok doing character design and art direction. As a seventeen year old getting his first job, it sounds like he took every opportunity to learn and every chance he could find to have some mischievous fun. He worked primarily on the Davey and Goliath shorts.Carl Jablonsky who is seated next, believed he had not met Rick before, but Rick remembered a show that they had worked on together where a prop that Jablonski had created ran him over in a scene that they were shooting. Jablonski left film production but has worked in the entertainment industry as a project manager for the theme park industry including stints at Disney Imagineering where his knowledge of lighting and set design was used in many projects. He also worked for the Burbank Studios and ILM. Ron Dexter sitting next to Carl, has directed and shot television commercials for thirty years. He made helicopter gyros for movie shots and steady cams before they were commercially available.

William Stromberg, worked on the Gumby and Davey and Goliath.He also did the short feature based on the Ray Bradbury story "A Sound of Thunder". He did miniatures and and special effects for movies and commercials (including the Chuck wagon dog food adds with the tiny horses and covered wagon). He proudly shared that his two greatest productions were his sons, William a distinguished conductor for many music scores of movies, and Robert, a special effects figure who has won two Oscars and is the director of "Maleficent". A last minute addition to the panel was Alec, whose last name I did not catch but who contributed to lively discussion of Art Clokey. He is a puppeteer and was trained as such by the WPA in the 1930s. He told us about being fired by Art for wanting a couple of weeks leave back in the fifties to work on a George Pal project. Art's comment was "I'm sick of training all these people for George Pal".

The discussion went on for two hours without much prompting from the M.C. Host, the organizer of the Gumby Fest. Once these guys got talking, they had plenty to say and they were all gracious in trading off time and trying to follow up on another tidbit of information to add to the other guys story. In all it was a wonderful experience and I hope that next year, if they have it back, all of you will consider a visit to the wilderness of Glendora for a nice day celebrating a wonderful cultural reference.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon Double Feature

One of the great surprises I've had in a movie theater in the last five years was "How to Train Your Dragon", an animated kids movie that created an amazing world with two exceptional characters to carry us into it. I have it listed as my second favorite film of 2010 and I feel happy to know that it exists in the world because it will bring huge pleasures to those that discover it themselves, and who would not want to live in that world? Hiccup and Toothless formed a incredible duo in that film. Each needed the other to complete a whole. With a primarily silent performance, the Dragon steals every scene he is in. Last night we went to a double feature to launch "How to Train Your Dragon 2".  When we saw the original movie, we had skipped the 3D version and I always thought the flying effects would look amazing in that format. So it turns out I was right. "How to Train Your Dragon" looks wonderful on the big screen and the flying sequences will pull you in and cast a spell over you as you thrill to the play in the skies.

The viking village of Berk is besieged by dragons, that steal their sheep and other domestic animals and generally reek fire from the sky on the community. "Hiccup"is the odd kid in town who can't just seem to fit in with the rest of the vikings. He is an inventor and a dreamer. He wants to live up to the standards of the rest of the kingdom. Especially tough is matching the dreams of his father "Stoic the Vast". The comedy grows out of his awkwardness with the other viking teens and trying to learn the skills of a dragon killer. There is however a big secret, he has managed to form a bond with the rare, previously unseen Night Fury Dragon. Their friendship is the soul of the movie as the culture clash between vikings and dragons has to be resolved and Hiccup must stand up for himself and his friend. The voice casting was just right and Gerard Butler, Jay Baruchel and Craig Ferguson provide emotional depth and comic highlights throughout the story.

The animators have taken a fierce dragon and turned him into the best puppy a kid could ever hope for. "Toothless" is smart, loyal and has a sense of humor that matches the best of us. That the vikings have a hard time coming to grips with this in the first film is a strong example of how our prejudices create blind spots for us. In the end it all works out but not without a cost. There is a thriving new Berk, and there is the promise of more adventure to come. That was the hope four years ago and now it is time to payoff. I can safely say the movie is a success, if not a total one. I think "Dragon 2: suffered a little bit in my view from having to follow the first film immediately in our screening. The first shone so brightly that the shiny parts of the new movie look just a little more subdued.

To start with, the cute and awkward teens are adults now and not quite as funny as they were in the first episode. "Hiccup" is something of a hero and well respected even though he is still a little bit different. His romance with Astrid continues and Stoic is confident enough in him that he wants to install him as the chief of the village early, a position "Hiccup" is not sure he is ready for. On the horizon is a new threat, a mysterious outsider named Drago, who years before had offered to control the Dragons if granted power. The other chiefs rejected him and now it appears he is back with plans of his own. Drago also has a relationship with dragons, but instead of it being symbiotic it is parasitic. His power threatens the new community of dragon riding vikings and the lives of the dragons are at stake. Another figure has also surfaced, one that means to keep dragons free and safe in a hidden kingdom. Of course that is not going to happen if Drago gets his way.

The new characters are adequately introduced and there is a logical set of conflicts set up, but it feels a lot more traditional than what happened in the first film. The conflict allows for some grander battle and some wonderful flying sequences. There is also a moment that is very disturbing for all the lovers of the Dragon's especially our heroic "Toothless". This is based on a concept that does exist in the natural world, but that may be hard for the younger kids to quite comprehend. It also end with a strong dramatic punch in the guts that may devastate fans of the characters. New characters and the old do manage to come together to confront the threat to their whole way of life.

I would have enjoyed seeing more of the Berk villagers with their dragons. There were two or three quick glimpses of the warm relationship they have developed, but other than "Hiccup" and "Toothless" we don't get much depth on any of those relationships and that felt a little weak. We are introduced to a vast aray of new dragons as well and most of them do not develop in very distinct ways. Unlike the first film where character is part of the story, this felt like the story was driving all the characters. It works but it did feel different enough that it was noticeable to me. In summary, everything works and the movie is beautiful, but it does seem a bit different. The two main characters continue to be the spine of the story and they go through enough drama here to make it a story worth telling. My quibbles are minor and I suspect that this film will be one of the big successes of the summer. I will also suggest seeing it on the biggest screen you can. We were a little miffed because the screening for the first movie was on an over-sized screen and then we were moved to another theater of the second feature, That was really strange and the second feature (which is the new movie being promoted) suffered a bit more by comparison.  It's not as fresh but it is a lot of fun and there is a friendship at the center of the story that makes it all feel right at the close.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

AMC Classic Film Series:Saturday Night Fever

I looked forward to this all week. It's been five or six years since I watched this movie and my memory of it has always been strong. I saw it originally when I was the same age as Travolta's character in the movie. In December of 1977, this became the movie that defined a generation. In the 1950's it was "Rebel Without a Cause", in the 1960's it was "The Graduate". For the seventies, "Saturday Night Fever" summed up the uncertainty about who we were and where we were going. The focus of the movie was on youth culture and it was not really a pretty sight despite the fact that it featured some pretty cool dancing and a great looking leading man. I'm happy to report that the film plays well still and it reminds me of all the things that were great about 1970s movies. They were honest, they were sometimes grimy, and they were willing to punch you in the gut or slap your face to make a point. 

A week ago tonight we watched the last Bee Gee Standing, perform a fantastic set at the Hollywood Bowl. You can't really talk about "Saturday Night Fever" without mentioning the biggest film soundtrack in history and one of the biggest selling albums of all time. The brothers were denied consideration for an Academy Award by a technical interpretation of the rules that year. Had they played the game like everyone else did, they would have walked away with it. Instead, we are trapped with the legacy of "You Light Up My Life" as that years winner, and "Thank God it's Friday" as a follow acknowledgement of the pop zeitgeist of the time. To be honest, it's not that big a deal because the Bee Gees songs from this film are still played regularly and people know the music even though it is more than thirty five years old. When Barry Gibb started the show with several tunes that were included on this soundtrack it was attention grabbing, but when he finished the main set with a dose of songs that included "Night Fever", 16,000 people were standing up doing the hustle.

The movie starts with a bang, you get a Brooklyn eye view of NYC, and then a close up of feet walking to the rhythm of "Stayin' Alive". As we watch the legs move in synchronization with the music we get a close up on the young John Travolta, who was about to become a pop culture god. Tonight in the back of the theater I heard two women wolf whistle when his face came up. Let's admit it, he was a good looking man at the prime of life and between this movie and "Grease" six months later, he became the biggest star in the world. The song is kickin' and is so well known that it is used in teaching CPR because the rhythm is such a match with the human heart rate. This movie is not plot driven, it is really a character piece and we start to know this character within seconds of his appearance on screen. As I watched this, it suddenly became obvious where Tom Cruise cribbed his tooth filled grin crutch. Travolta makes the movie feel alive every time the corners of his mouth go up and he flashes that smile. Even though this is a drama, there is a a lot of humor to Tony Manero's personality.

Film critic Gene Siskel frequently mentioned that "Saturday Night Fever" was a favorite film of his, and it is a well known piece of trivia that for many years he owned the white polyester suit that Travolta wore in the last quarter of the film, including the dance contest. That is another indication of it's iconic status for the film generation that came of age in the 70s. The movie does a very realistic take on the lives of young men in this culture. It is true that there is some hyperbole with the gang fight and the pregnant girlfriend device, but watch the dinner scenes and you will know how real it is. All of the family scenes play out as real slice of life moments. The workplace interaction that Tony and his boss have seems genuine. When you watch Travolta's face as he looks at the other guys who have made their lives at the paint store, you can see that the theme of the movie is not about dancing, but really about the question of who you want to be.

All of Tony's friends would like to be him, as the "King" of their social environment he is to be envied. Stephanie, the girl Tony wants to dance with and romance, wants to be a Manhattan sophisticate instead of a Brooklyn girl poser. His brother wants to be something other than the priest he has been pushed into becoming and his parents want his brother to be the thing that brings them the most comfort, "Father Frank". Annette, the rejected dance partner wants to be Tony's love object. It looks from the outside that Tony is the one who really knows who he is, but as the movie goes on, we see he is just as unhappy with his perceived self as everyone else is. The dancing skills makes him "special", but he is insecure about his own future, and when he sees that even dancing cannot be trusted to show off who he truly is, then he has to face the reality that change requires that he make some decisions about his life. 

The dance sequences are great to look at and a couple of moments are really special. They won't be eternal like Gene Kelly moves, but they feel big and real and relevant to the character in the times. The conversations never sound tin eared even though there are some cliched moments in the movie. The music is timeless even if the dancing is not. The song "How Deep is Your Love" is used very effectively as Tony comes out of the bad night he has had and comes to the point where he admits that things can't stay the way they have been. Musical interludes are sometimes used to fill a story, here they are used to fill out the story. This was a movie of great synergy, between the Music of the Bee Gees and the film star making performance by John Travolta. The tagline on the posters said it all..."Where do you go when the records over?"

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

There are haters out there who have it in for Tom Cruse. Something about his personal life, or his good looks, or his incredible career just sets people on edge for some reason. Well if you are in that class of people get ready for more reason to hate, because Tom Cruise has a new film that will piss you off because he is good in it and it is a big success. I don't know what the financial return will be but the accomplishment of the film is something to admire and the performance of Cruise will remind everyone that he is talented and as charismatic as all heck, despite the whatever personal baggage the haters want to make him carry.

In anticipation of the summer season, I heard people ho hum this movie. "Another Tom Cruise Action film" big whoop. I just looked at his list of recent films, of the last five which arrived since 2010, four were very solid and only one was a turkey. That's an .800 batting average. In the major leagues that puts you in the Hall of Fame. True, only one, the fourth Mission Impossible, will be a home run, but all of the others were solid singles or doubles. The guy has proven himself time and again and waiting for him to fail is a pastime that people should give up. I've heard the names of several actors who are up and coming, or were at one point, as the next Tom Cruise type. All of them are good actors with quality parts under their belts, but none is even close to the consistency and quality of Mr. Cruise.

Having outed myself as a Tom Cruise fan, let's talk about the movie. "Edge of Tomorrow" is a science fiction action flick. It's already sitting in my breadbasket with that description. It is also intelligent, fresh, and extremely well made. One thing it has going for it is that it is not a sequel and it does not lend itself well to serialization. It is a stand alone film that tries to do something somewhat original. Maybe that sounds strange since the movie has been described as "Groundhog Day" meets "Halo", but it sure feels original despite those comparisons. The science fiction gimmick that provides for the plot twist is original. The relationship between the two main characters is original. The performance of the star is original as well. Cruise plays craven rather than bold. He is cocksure but out of his depths and he makes some strong choices to show that. He starts off in what he sees as a position of power and quickly discovers his powerlessness. The terror in his eyes is real as his character Cage, is required to become something he has never been, a sincere and dedicated soldier. He overplays his P.R. creating hand and ends up on the front-line of an invasion of Europe, very similar to D-Day, on the 70th anniversary of that undertaking. He is the incompetent version of Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan". It is only through an accident of battle that he acquires the ability to reset the day and live it over, hopefully changing things for the better.

Unlike "Groundhog Day", this repeated experience has nothing to do with his journey as a better man. That does happen but it is a by product rather than the purpose of the technique. Cage's real journey is one of victory over an invading force that threatens the planet. His "gift" is a stolen secret of the invaders that allows them to anticipate every action of the Earth forces because they have already experienced them before. Of course, if you start pulling too hard at the treads of any time travel story, you will start to find imperfections, the most successful of these stories work because you are too busy enjoying the events that worrying about timelines, logic and means becomes unimportant. "Edge of Tomorrow" manages to do that by surrounding the character with state of the art special effects, effective action sequences, and enough colorful characters to distract but not pull you away from the central plot. Rita Vrataski is the heroine of the Earth forces. She is known for leading them to their only victory in the war. Emily Blunt, in a departure from the characters she has played in a dozen movies I've seen, is a hardnosed battle weary figure, who does not suffer fools gladly, and Bill Cage is a fool at first. She turns out to be one of only two people in the world who know what is happening to Bill. She becomes his focus and his bane. The reset button on the time travel concept being his death. She sometimes seems to be a little too happy to hit that reset button. These two actors build a believable relationship in unbelievable circumstances.

The other soldiers in Cage's squad get just enough character to be distinctive and to give us some reason to care when they become part of the plot and not just background. Bill Paxton plays against type as the humorless tough Sargent that every military based film has ever had. Usually he is the craven soldier, faking bravado for his brothers in arms. Clearly he knows how to become a hard ass and in spite of his tough demeanor, his reactions create some of the humor in the film. Brendon Gleeson is equally without humor, and it is easy to see how men like Sgt. Farrell and General Brigham would despise Major Cage and are all to happy to see him put on the front lines, knowing he will die almost immediately. The Major Sargent and the General are military professionals engaged in a serious endeavor, Cage is play acting at being an officer and undermines the cause. They become obstacles themselves to winning the war because they have been exposed to the creature that Cage was once. Only Rita sees a new man every time she encounters him. It is a strange relationship that the two have to navigate as they become close and understand one another, only to be forced to start over again and again.

When the film first came on my radar, it was known by the title of the manga book that it is based on, "All You Need is Kill". That is a great title and I thought that changing it reflected a lack of confidence in the material and the audience. "Edge of Tomorrow" sound nondescript by comparison. As I watched the film however, I realized that the title really does reflect the theme of the movie more that the original. It is a clever recognition of the time element in the story and the dangerous situation the characters face. Sometimes the marketing department has a good idea, and when that happens they should get credit. I also love the tagline on the publicity material. The shampoo like directions "Live. Die. Repeat." contains enough of the concept to make it intriguing and the movie does that really well. You wo't feel the repeat sections with discomfort because they are subtlety changed at first then they are truncated and finally they become mere punctuation points to the story.

The action sequences looked amazing and they might be even better in the 3D format that the movie is being pushed in. We saw a regular screening and the shaky cam during the battle could be vomit inducing so in 3D it is probably more so. I liked that this is an alien invasion movie that is not all about showing us the destruction of buildings and mass deaths. Those are implied by some of the scenery and backgrounds, but the movie, while having some dramatic battle scenes is not really focused on destruction as much as it is focused on a pretty creative idea. The stars do a good job portraying their characters, and the big star, fills the screen with his presence and shows that Tom Cruise is still a force to be reckoned with. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Carl Gottlieb Signing in Burbank

In case any readers were wondering, "JAWS" is my favorite modern film. Some day I will do the list that everyone else works up for their top ten, and depending on the day, "JAWS" will be either one or two on the list (because "The Adventures of Robin Hood" will have to fight for that spot as well). Five years ago, we saw "Jaws" at a screening on Sunset Blvd. at the Vista Theater. Mr. Gottlieb spoke for a couple of minutes before the movie and as the principle screenwriter for the film, we hung on every word. After the movie, my daughter (who is an even bigger "Jaws" fanatic than I am), had him sign her copy of "The Jaws Log", the book he wrote about his experience working on the film (he also appeared on screen as the editor of the Amity Newspaper). I did not have the foresight to go out to the shed, dig through twenty boxes of books and locate my original paperback edition, so I missed out.

My blogging colleague at "It Rains, You Get Wet", posted a notice that Carl Gottlieb would be at an authors signing at "Dark Delicacies" a horror themed bookstore in Burbank this Saturday. After making sure I had no other conflicts, I hijacked my kid the fanatic and off we went. I'ts been years since I was in this part of town but she recognized it right away, having recently visited a vintage store that sells movie and TV castoffs. It was not hard to find, the Gothic Lettering stands out on the street.
We got there a few minutes before the 2:00 starting time and they were still setting up for the dozen or so authors they were expecting  for the event. As we walked in the door, there was a stack of the 30th Anniversary Edition of the book and maybe four or five of the recently expanded edition. Having no self control, we picked up two copies and went to look for the line. Mr. Gottlieb was the first author there, he was set up at the first spot and he was ready to go, so we did not wait.

  I walked up, introduced myself and shook his hand. He smiled quietly and took my book and asked me the name I would like to have him sign it to. As he was looking for the title page to inscribe, I asked if it would be alright to get a picture with him. He said "of course" and invited me behind the table. This was only possible because the other authors had not yet arrived so there was room and not a big crowd to jockey through. I happily sat down next to him and watched as he wrote in my book.

I'm happy to add this to my recently growing collection of signed books. Most of them have not been personalized like this one was so I will be able to appreciate this even more. I wish I knew the horror and gaming based books that were written by the other authors today. As people were coming in they were very impressed to meet their favorites. As I said, it looked like they were set up for a dozen writers or so. The bookstore was never overcrowded but it did start to fill in and I felt fortunate that we had gotten there when we did.

Since my daughter accompanied me all the way across town to keep me from being alone, I consented to purchasing another copy for her to get signed. Short of going on ebay and hunting down collectibles at Christies, she is doing a good job of accumulating "Jaws" memorabilia. 

 Here is the signature she got which is really appropriate because she does not go in the water, even as a lifelong resident of Southern California.
We ended up walking down to the soda and candy store, Rocket Fizz, after our visit and found some hard to locate treats that should make the rest of the weekend just as memorable. As we walked back by the store, the shop was full of people waiting for their signatures. I noticed the sign in the window and could not resist getting one more shot for the post here.
I tried to talk her into getting a souvenir key fob from the "Amity Island Motor Hotel" but she said she did not want anyone to think that she was just another of the summer ginks coming into town for the weekend.
  Thanks Michael for the heads up in this, sorry you missed out.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I do not mean this in a disparaging way, but every teen age girls and most young women in their twenties will be going to see this movie. The book has been huge, the stars are well cast and the time is right since all the other book based films aimed at this demographic have either flamed out or are still in the process of being made. It is as if God said "Let there be a movie for young girls to love", and this was the result. Here is the phrase that someone heard and said let's do this, "Young cancer love story."

What can you say about a romantic couple that dies? (My apologies to Oliver Barret IV) Tragic love stories are the best, because everyone is suspicious of a happy ending, with tragedy no one worries about the future when the lovers are separated by death. That's why Romeo and Juliet has lasted five centuries and "Say Anything" is mocked by the character in this movie. One of the "cancer perks" is that you will be forgiven for belittling other stories because yours is more tragic. You will also be forgiven because the story you tell has it's heart in the right place. This is not a maudlin story or one about facing the incredible odds courageously. It is a story that feels real despite the obvious emo trappings that surround it. This is due in large part to the cast and the light touch of the director. They have processed what this book represents and translated it faithfully to the screen.

Cancer patient support group does not sound like the typical "cute meet" in a romance. It sounds like something out of "Fight Club" without the cynicism. Whenever love manages to appear, even in the movies, if it is earned and reflects a legitimate path, then it is something you can respect. I respected this love story because the characters don't fall in love instantly. One becomes enamoured of the other and then there is some real cat and mouse pursuit. That they are destined to fall in love is obvious going in to the story, but the story shows us why it happens instead of merely showing us that they are in love. Unusual circumstances bring them closer and they handle it in a way that seems reasonable for the situation.

Shailene Woodley is perfectly cast as Hazel Grace, the central figure in the story. This is a tale told from the perspective of the girl. Even when the guys experience is driving the story, it is the female love interest that we follow through the plot. She is young and destined to not get much older. Her infirmities are such that the physical toll does not require her to fade in beauty as the movie goes on. Miss Woodley is a charming young woman with some nice screen charisma and she carries the story for the most part. Her counterpart is the weakness in the story, and not because the actor Ansel Elgort is not good. He is excellent at the clever by play and winsome smile and romance stuff. Where he falls down is with the dying cancer patient material. In the book (which I did indeed read), there is a physical transformation and a slow decay of the handsome and confident young man. He loses weight, and energy and looks sick according to the descriptions. In the film, he looks like the same guy we saw for the rest of the movie, only now he is in a wheelchair. It feels to be a little bit of a cheat that Hazel says in the prologue that this is the truth, not the sugarcoating, but in the end it is a little sugarcoated.

There are some wonderful moments in the movie. I loved the dinner scene in Amsterdam. The hurling of eggs at Monica's car worked pretty well on screen. I liked the cute script in the dialogue bubbles that represent the text messages. The visit to the Anne Frank house is also very good.  Laura Dern as Hazel's mom delivers some very strong lines about the hurt that she faces and the reality that they will go on. It did not sound like the platitude of a parent comforting a child, but the resignation of an adult to the hardest thing they will ever endure. Willem DeFoe looks more normal as the drunk writer than he usually does in his films, so it was played very realistically and for the most part. There were some appropriate cinematic changes to the end of the story and they improve on the clarity of the resolution without dragging in a search mystery at the last minute. Honestly, the only thing I missed from the book was the added resolution of Sisyphus the hamster.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

AMC Classic Series: Raiders of the Lost Ark

OK, I don't have a lot to say about this today. Someday I will do an Indiana Jones Festival and invite anyone interested in participating. For now I will say I saw three movies in theaters this weekend, and if I had to choose only one to have gone to,this would have been it. Raiders is a fantastic adventure movie that continues to show how much better off we were creatively and as an audience, before Computers replaced everything we see with pixels.

There is a lot of humor in Raiders and Harrison Ford never gets as much credit for these physical performances as he deserves. A slack jawed expression here, a scowl there and a smirk laughing at his own situation fill this character with more personality than most action stars get through a whole series of movies. I haven't seen all of his recent performances, but I will be there on opening day to see Harrison Ford as part of the cast in "The Expendables III". I think he will fit in fine if they give him some funny business to go along with the action stuff.

If you haven't seen my post on "Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom", you don't need to see Raiders first but it could not hurt. Anytime I encounter it, Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen it going to pull me back to 1936 for 115 minutes. That's right my friends, this movie is less than two hours long and still packs more into it's contents than films that add another hour to their running time. There is always something new in the background, foreground or dialogue that I haven't focused on before but makes each experience unique. Today I was absorbed by all the little pieces of business that Ford does with his hands and face.

AMC has done one thing with this current series that it failed to do with the last, lower the prices. These are movies that people will come out to see but $12 for a thirty-five year old movie on a Sunday afternoon was a little steep. They've dropped the price to $6, less than the cost of an early morning screening. Today, there were a dozen people in our showing. I may go again on Wednesday if the schedule works out for me. Two years ago with the release of the Indiana Jones films on blu ray, there were some Raiders IMAX screenings. Today's presentation was a standard viewing but still worth the time and energy.


Disney is doing it's darndest to exploit all their properties and keep us entertained at the same time. A traditional retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" could have worked fine, just as the live action "101 Dalmatians" did a dozen or so years ago. Somewhere in the bowels of the Imagineering Department or in the Production agreement with big movie stars, someone has decided that a straight remake is not cool, and a story needs to be tweaked to make it fresh. The best known example of this in the recent past has been the musical "Wicked". A couple of years ago, Disney re-imagined "Alice in Wonderland". Now it is time for a classic fairy tale to get it's own variation and they have chosen one with a great villainess which makes the visualization a handy shortcut to the story.

There is a great deal to admire about this movie. I thought the opening section in which the character of "Maleficent" is introduced in her child form was really marvelous. The character was appealing and there is a nice romantic edge to the story line that is being developed. The character of Stephan however, is not quite as nicely developed and it was hard to see the conflicting choices he was faced with until the key scenes in the movie. The character development here was incomplete which makes some of the plotting a little muddled. Although a conflict between the two worlds was suggested in the narration, we are not really shown any of that except in a direct combat scene. One side is immediately presented as evil and as a result, they lose any interest as part of the story. A whole Kingdom becomes a cardboard cutout villain. The movie shows armies and battles but nothing that would back up the need or desire for those battles.

My daughter has watched "Once Upon a Time" and we have both seen "Frozen" so the twist in the movie is not as great as it should be. I liked it pretty well but she feels that it is almost becoming a contemporary cliche. The movie is aggressively unromantic and that trend may reflect blowback from all the years that Disney has been accused of brainwashing little girls about "true love" and the handsome prince. The switch in tone is meant to appeal to more modern audiences and ways of thinking, but it feels like something of the magic is being lost by doing this. The outcome does differ from tradition and while that might sometimes be appealing, it does feel strange when being thrust upon a story like this. In a way it makes the calculation of changing the character focus even more noticeable.

Angelina Jolie was obviously perfectly cast in the movie. She almost has the high cheekbones without the prosthetic and special effects makeup. Her eyes do a lot of the acting in the movie but her voice is also used exceptionally well. She is the main reason to see the film. She appears to be invested in telling the story and selling her performance. She has two emotional transformations that she has to pull off and both of them succeed pretty well. The second one is more subtle and takes up much of the storyline but it feels solid because it is allowed to play out. You can see the turn coming, but you can also believe that it might not get here, That is the value of her performance. It is a bit disconcerting that the bad guy has to be the hero and the reverse happens as well. I hope that the desire to tell traditional stories doesn't require us to subvert what came before every time. I'm willing to go along today because of the casting and performance, but screenwriters should be careful about going to that well too frequently.

This may have been a film where the 3D process would be worth seeing. I saw it in a regular two dimensional form and the edges of characters looked soft and artificial to me. I saw several spots where the extra dimensionality would be exciting in the scene, and make the events in those sequences more dynamic. The creatures of the moors that Maleficent is the de-facto queen over look a bit cartoonish and sometimes silly. There are long sequences where the beauty of the woods is supposed to be a marvel but it just looks conventional and weak. The best live comparison I could think of to make was Ridley Scott's "Legend". The enchanted forest in that film looked more real on the sets than anything in this CGI wonderland that has been created for the character here to inhabit.

You may notice that I've said nothing about Sleeping Beauty herself. Elle Fanning is a good actress, she was great in "Super 8" a couple of years ago. She is fine in this film but there is so little to her part that almost any pretty young actress would have been fine in the role. It has to be a thankless task to star in a fairy tale as the princess who is subject to a curse, and end up playing second fiddle to a character that might be mostly defined by her horns. The three good faeries are played strictly for laughs and between them and King Stephan, there is no emotional investment in what goes on with Aurora. There is more to say but it is late and I've been busy this weekend as you will see if you visit the other blog.  I may come back and add some more to this review but for now i can say it was an interesting experience that I can't quite warm up to, but did admire at times.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

I've not seen "Ted", I don't care for "Family Guy" and I thought his hosting of the Academy Awards was probably not appropriate. That does not mean I don't think Seth Macfarlane is funny, there are a lot of things about this movie that are amusing. I think that in limited doses and with some strong story telling, he could have made this a classic comedy that will be laughed at by audiences for years. As it is, it feels a little tired about halfway through and it fails to take full advantage of some of it's assets.

Let me start by mentioning a couple of things that worked really well for me, the songs and Charlieze Theron. The title song is actually sung over the end credits and it was funny as heck without descending to some of the sad punchlines the rest of the movie relied on. It was the one element that reminded me of "Blazing Saddles". The other song in the movie that also worked well was a dance number that did give Neil Patrick Harris the chance to show off some of his talent. It was a reworking of a Steven Foster song, so while not completely original, I know that the lyrics have been juiced up a bit by the screenwriters.

Charlieze is the one performer who seems to be trying to play a character in a story. Everyone else is mostly mugging for the camera, she plays sweet, and tough and winsome all at once. Even when she is doing comedy shtick, she still seems like a real person. Maybe not always an 1882 person, but not just a joke on two legs. MacFarlane, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, and even Liam Neeson, are camping it up for the camera. Silverman especially, because her part is the broadest and most risque, plays it like a live action cartoon character. After getting the great dance scene, Harris is subjected to a remake of a scene from "Dumb and Dumber" and "Bridesmaids" and it feels tired and the visual punch is for shock value only.

Part of the problem is too much of the premise is given away in the title and the trailers. We are constantly on the lookout and waiting for the next horrifying thing to happen. Instead of being surprised, we are anticipating and the lack of payoff can probably be lain at the feet of the marketing department. Rapid jokes and punchlines are fine, I loved "Airplane!" and it's successors. Here it was just more redundant than it needed to be. I think a lot of the humor relies on being politically incorrect, but that is as far as it goes. When Mel Brooks or Richard Pryor made a joke about race or religion, it was in aid of a bigger laugh, it was not the laugh itself. So much of what MacFarlane does just feels like poking the bear for the sake of getting a rise out of him.

I enjoyed seeing several cameo appearances in the movie, but I also liked seeing several familiar actors from television and movies show up in smaller parts. Matt Clark has been making movies since the 1960s and he has a nice part as a grizzled prospector in this film. He has appeared in several Clint Eastwood Westerns, at least one John Wayne film and several TV westerns. The movie needed a few more references to those roots rather than just the contemporary stunt casting used for quick visual jokes. This movie was entertaining but not special enough to make it essential repeat viewing. I don't know that there are in fact a million ways to die in the west, but I do know that there are a million ways to make a potty joke, and this movie uses about half of them.