Wednesday, July 30, 2014

AMC Classic Series: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Watch the trailer please, and then we will come back and discuss the movie briefly...

2:25 later

That looks like it could be a Jerry Bruckheimer produced action film. All that is missing is Keira Knightly and/or Orlando Bloom.

Now that we have that out of the way, I just want to talk about this movie for a short space. I've written on the subject before. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was one of the original films on my project when I started four years ago. If you go back and read that post you will know why.

Today's screening was a version of the film played for the release of the Blu Ray a couple of years ago. The film started with what must have been an extra on the Blu Ray disc, a ten minute review of some deleted animations by Terry Gilliam. It was a little disorienting because it started without any explanation. Fortunately the regular title sequence began after the new stuff and the mayhem continued from there.

If you have not seen "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", your film going experience is incomplete. This movie is the funniest film ever made. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell something. I chuckled through three minutes of titles that have nothing to do with the story and when the people doing the sacking, got sacked and replaced with a South American crew making the same kind of credit jokes with a different animal, I just about lost it. None of the Pythons had appeared and I was already laughing. That's a good sign.

This is followed immediately by the most stunningly stupid but entertaining as hell visual jokes you will ever see. It all starts with the sound of a horse clopping along through a mist and over a hill. To say more for non-initiates would be a disservice. There follows a strange conversation about the physics of bird flight and a grim image that has another good payoff. Kids, you can always tell when someone is a King, they are not covered in the same stuff as everyone else.

Although there is a plot to the film, it is really just a series of sketches strung together with parts of Arthur lore. Camelot is disposed of with a quick song and dance and the knights proceed to demonstrate their wisdom,bravery and their clear sense of absurdity. This movie is almost forty years old, and if you went to see "Sex Tape", "22Jump Street" or any other so called contemporary comedy this week, you made a mistake. This was six bucks that is worth twice that and will leave you with a good tast in you mouth from the bad taste of British comedians from four decades ago.

Now before you attempt to cross the bridge of death, you must answer for me these questions three:

What is your name? (State your name at this point or be doomed)

What is your Quest? (You Seek Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

What is the Capital of Assyria? ( The most famous capital of Assyria was Nineveh although Assyria had four)

OK, you have your marching orders, go see the movie.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Keith and the Movies: Bloggers Roundtable

Come on by for a spirited discussion of movie decades.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Once Upon a Time in the West

This film is a masterpiece that did not get the accolades it deserved on initial release due to studio tampering and cuts. When restored to it's full glory several years ago, it developed a degree of respect far beyond that accorded the earlier spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. If anyone has said something to you in the last fifteen years about how great this film is they were right and you should have listened to them.I have seen this movie two or three times in the last couple of years but this was the first opportunity I've had to see it on the big screen. The American Cinematique was showing this at the Egyptian Theater on Friday night so I made the thirty-five mile trek down there to catch it. There was a problem with the ticketing process and we had to be issued blank tickets. It took extra time and while I waited in line I had a nice conversation with the gentleman behind me. He was also seeing it for the umpteenth time but had actually gone when it first hit theaters and did not like it. As his perspective changed over the years, forced in part by friends who wanted him to enjoy the film as much as they did, he had become one of the films big admirers and he told me that my review today should be glowing, so it is.

There are so many things to talk about on this movie that I'm afraid I will have to be arbitrary to hold it to a reasonable length. I want to start with the opening of the film, which deserves a blog post of it's own. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are so incredibly well put together, it is difficult to imagine that it could be any better. Only one character speaks in the opening and he has just a couple of lines that are ignored by the main actors. Three ominous men, heavily armed and with no pretense of friendliness, show up at a train station to await the arrival of a man they have been sent to kill. They lock up the station agent, the Indian woman at the platform runs off, and it is just the three men in a stark setting, positioning themselves and waiting for the train. Normally there would be a score or theme playing to create additional tension, instead, the sounds of the station are turned into a symphony of creaks, squeaks, and buzzing flies. One man cracks his knuckles as if loosening up his fingers for the gunplay to come, one takes a seat outside the station and begins to amuse himself by capturing an annoying fly in the barrel of his gun. The third man stands in the shade under the water tower and doesn't move from the spot even when a drip of water begins to fill the brim of his hat with a steady drop by drop pounding. The sound design in this scene is marvelous. The windmill turns continuously and it squeaks out a tune that is as threatening as any music would have been. The first drop of water on the hat sounds like a bullet hitting nearby. The surrounding silence builds until we finally hear the screeching train whistle, still a couple of miles away. All three of the actors perform without words until that train arrives. Sergio Leone notoriously uses close ups to add character to the players and the intensity of the three pairs of eyes, the grime on their faces and the lack of anything resembling a human emotion tells us that these are three very bad men.

Since the scene involves waiting for a fourth man, who turns out to be Charles Bronson one of the listed stars of the film, it is not really a spoiler to say that the scene turns out in a way very different than has been set up. If the opening scene of the movie deserves it's own blog post, then a book should be written about the face of Charles Bronson. His skin is taut and bronzed. His cheeks and eyes resemble a punching bag from a gym frequented by expert heavyweights. His green eyes spit death and seem as dangerous a warning as the shake of a rattlesnakes tail. When Clint Eastwood crosses paths with violent men in his Leone films, there was a sense of resignation about the inevitability of those men's deaths. The verbal byplay that would ensue, still left a hope that someone would survive. No such hope exists when Bronson stares down his would be killers. His comment that they brought two more horses than necessary would have provoked a laugh coming from Clint, here it encourages a shudder. Death has spoken and he has no sense of humor, despite the joke. For two more hours of the picture, we are going to see that face and most of the men who encounter it during the course of the story are not going to live through the experience.

So much of the movie is made up of close ups that you might become a little claustrophobic. In truth though there are spectacular vistas, mixing scenes shot in Spain with locations in Arizona and Utah. There is a great revealing shot as the female lead, chooses to leave the train station and find a carriage to take her to her new husbands ranch. As the camera comes up over the roof of the station, a wide street filled with activity and the dusty background of the desert is shown with a wonderful musical theme that brings out the majesty in the moment. Earlier we were treated to the slaughter of a family in the wide open territory surrounding their house, with a long shot of the predators closing in at the end like a pack of wolves. Several moments in the film will feature a train, crawling across the vast space of the desert vistas and making the human figures appear microscopic at times. The composition of most of these shots is planned and choreographed to give exactly the impression that Leone wants to create at each key moment.

If you watch the movie for a first time, there may be some moments that are a little confusing. There are two gangs of thugs in the story. One lead by the psychopathic Frank, and the other by laconic criminal  Cheyenne.  As Frank's men are trying to pass themselves off as Cheyenne's gang, in order to deflect blame for the atrocities that they are engaging in, they sometimes wear the same long dusters that are the trademark of the band of criminals that ride with Cheyenne. Since the faces are often indistinct under beards, grime and large hats, it is easy to get lost as you try to figure out which group of crooks you are watching at any moment. When Frank's men turn on him at one point, it is also a little confusing, especially when Bronson's character, known as "Harmonica", seems to be saving Frank and shooting at men that a few minutes before might have been his allies. I can imagine how difficult it might have been for audiences watching a truncated version of the film, to keep track of what is happening on screen.

In a stroke of casting genius, Leone places genial, well loved Henry Fonda in the part of Frank, as the vilest killer in westerns. He shoots down an eight year old boy in cold blood. He suggests that it is because one of his crew used his name and the boy heard, but everything about frank and Fonda's performance suggests that this is merely a pretext used to justify the act to his men Looking at him in different spots throughout the movie, there is no doubt that Frank enjoys the infliction of cruelty on others. Just as Bronson will be seen in a hundred close ups, so will Fonda, his piercing blue eyes displaying a coldness to them that had never before been a part of any performance he had given on screen. When he casually talks about the future death of the woman he has kidnapped, as he is sexually engaged with her, we know that there is no soft spot anywhere in his bones. As the unfortunate Mrs. McBain tries to reach him through sex, he mocks her as a tramp, willing to debase herself in any way to survive. Of course he has given her no choice and is is only the desire to acquire her land that keeps him from murdering her once he has violated her.

One other sweaty face that we see in close up dozens of times in the movie is that of Cheyenne, the criminal played by Jason Robards. His character turns out to have the most humanity, which says something since he is a notorious criminal and murderer himself. He is the most grizzly of the three lead actors, and his motivations are far from clear. We know that Harmonica is on some kind of vengeance seeking plan against Frank, but we do not learn why until the end of the picture. We never really know why Cheyenne takes the side of the widow McBain or allies himself with the clearly dangerous Harmonica, except that it seems to amuse him to do so.
Robards has whatever comic relief there might be in the picture, but it is never presented as a comedy. His lines and the gunshot through the boot might provoke a laugh, but the character is never a clown and he is as dangerous as either of the other men. None of the three characters are played as if they are stupid, but Cheyenne is the one who seems to most recognize his own limitations. It is strange to think of this character as the conscience of the story but that is exactly what he is.

The shootouts and action scenes in the film are great. Leone makes us wait in agonizing anticipation in some spots for the payoff that we know is coming, but that makes the payoff all the better when it arrives. I meant to keep this short and if I stop before I get involved with the complexities of the plot maybe I can do so. There are many moments of beauty and several amusing lines, but all of it is leading up to the moment when Frank and Harmonica meet for the final showdown. As Cheyenne puts it:" He's whittling on a piece of wood. I got a feeling that when he stops whittling, something's gonna happen." This film is the main inspiration of another of my favorites, the homage "The Quick and the Dead". When you get to the reveal of the vengeance motive, you will enjoy the Sharon Stone movie much more. I can't imagine that anyone would be able to enjoy this movie more. It is the ultimate achievement of director Sergio Leone, and it is just about as great a Western as you are likely to see. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

AMC Classic Series:The Breakfast Club

I've seen this movie dozens of times since 1985. It was a film that I used in my Small Group Communication class to discuss several different concepts of group dynamics, include roles, norms, power, self-disclosure and climate. All of those points are still interesting but this is a film blog and the real reason for discussing it are the cinematic qualities of the film. There are three subjects that I want to address in regard to the film making; the setting of the film, the themes of the film and the performances.

I was listening to a podcast today that discussed a movie that was based on a play, and the participants wondered how that film could have been done on the stage with the number of locations that were used. I'd go the opposite direction, why hasn't anyone turned this into a play? It is perfect for a community theater or high school little theater project. There is one main location, two secondary locations and then some transition material that takes place mostly in hallways. This film is ninety percent five people talking in a single room. John Hughes, the writer-director manages to make the potentially claustrophobic location interesting by having the characters move seating positions, step off into side areas temporarily and insert two or three sequences where a chase or an escape occurs just outside of the room. I do think that many audience members will be a bit tense because there is not a lot of action, but the characters manage to keep things compelling.

The first time I saw it, I was young enough that I could largely identify with the themes of alienation being expressed here. This is a Generation X movie, just as that generation was being defined. Kids felt out of touch with their parents, mostly because the parents had achieved some level of economic status that they had expectations and demands on their kids that the young people were unsure they would be able to live up to. The kids were also sometimes resentful of the expectations being heaped on them. As I have grown older, I tend to see a little more that this is high school drama being played out here. There have always been cliques, parents are often less than what we might hope, and bullying and social jockeying have always been a part of adolescence. The movie starts off with a quote from a David Bowie song. It feels more appropriate to the counter-cultural revolution of the late sixties than the bleak indifference that is the subject of this mid-eighties film. What is not overwrought however are the feelings of loneliness and isolation that kids can feel, even when surrounded by others. Only one character claims to have no friends, all the others resent their friends, are pressured by them or are defensive about them in some way or other. The interaction between the characters may border on maudlin or hyperbolic at times but they are real emotions and they reflect the way real kids might have felt.

What was most impressive to me were the performances by the cast. Judd Nelson goes a little over the top occasionally, but the scene where he reveals through mimicry his family dynamic is heart breaking. Watching the other actors respond to it was an opportunity to see how acting so often is not about being at the center and having the most lines, but being in the moment and treating the characters honestly.  Emilio Estevz was never this good in anything else he appeared in. His Jock, Andy, feels powerless and uncertain in the face of his future and his expressions show that. There is a nice warm moment at the end when he connects with Allison that gives him a little more hope. Molly Ringwald had "Sixteen Candles" behind her and "Pretty In Pink" in front, and she was in the sweet spot of her career playing the contemplative pretty girls with a lack of confidence. Ali Sheedy's character does not even speak for the first third of the film but she manages to command attention. Her lines when she is manipulating Claire are sarcastic but also thoughtful and unpredictable. Anthony Michael Hall is the biggest surprise, I forgot how touching and honest and funny his character was. The look on his face when he delivers his explanation of why he has a fake ID is great, as if he could not understand why anyone would not have the same reason. Paul Gleason may have had a bigger role in some other movie but I can't think of what it might be. Most of his other parts he is in the background, here he is the main antagonist. As I got older I understood his defensive impulses more, they reflect years of experience and frustration but also an inability to change. His voice conveys those very characteristics when he is having his heart to heart with Carl the Janitor but especially in his one on one confrontation with Bender.

Is this still the must see movie for high school kids to bond over? I don't know. It still worked for me as I watched it on the big screen. The final defiant salute that Bender gives still brings a little thrill as I identify with the rebels for a moment. The homophobic language would not go far in a script these days, and the pot smoking would probably earn it a more restrictive rating. I would not want to encourage getting high as the best way to break the walls between kids in their teens. That it worked for the "Breakfast Club" is probably more of a screenwriters crutch than reality, but the feelings that get discussed and the frustration of the kids, now that is genuine.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Begin Again

I come to this post and this movie without any preconceived idea of how the movie is supposed to look or sound or even develop. I have not seen "Once", even though I own a copy and it has been strongly recommend to me. I will not be comparing "Begin Again", made by the same director as "Once", to a movie that I have not seen. It looks to me on a number of sites that this is exactly what other writers are doing. Whether that is fair or not I can't say. This review will be solely based on my experience today. I thought the film was wonderful. The style is interesting and I think it helps justify the title. I liked the actors, especially Mark Ruffalo, and the music was just good enough to believe in for the scenerio that the film creates.

Keira Knightly plays a songwriter, who lives with a musician on the brink of major stardom. Ruffalo is an A and R guy, on his way to oblivion because of his personal life. The movie starts with a single scene in a N.Y. Cafe, where would be musicians play their tunes for audiences that can be indifferent because their beer has just arrived or they spilled their drink, or the date that they are with has suddenly said something interesting and then no one is paying attention to the singer all of a sudden. From the moment of the performance we are then moved to two elaborate flashback sequences that bring us to that particular performance. Neither of the sequences is very pleasant for the characters but they fill the audience in on what the circumstances of the two main people in the story are. As the first flashback ends, it is as if someone reached up and pushed the replay button, so we begin again (See the clever title reference?, Much better than On The Road).

That structure might seem pretentious to some, but I enjoyed it and it reminds us as an audience that this is a story about two people, being told from different perspectives at times. What we as an audience might desire for either of these people, by themselves or together, is bound up with the stories of others and there are cross currents moving continuously. The subject of redemption and the theme of finding yourself are major components of what happens in the story, but the story itself concerns music. This story wants us to revel in music, The film visualizes the process of creating music in several interesting ways, including a fantasy segment of that opening scene. The biggest thing to take away from the movie is the power that music can have over you, both for good or ill. For instance, the musician Keira breaks up with has written a new and beautiful song, but it is so different from what he has written before that it is obvious to her that it was written for someone else. His song reveals things about him that he might have wanted to keep a secret.

Another example of how music can be so important in defining a relationship comes in a section in which Ruffalo and Knightly share their playlists with each other while also sharing the same device. It is a moment of deliberate self disclosure that brings them to the edge of a deeper relationship. As they walk through NYC listening to Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Dooley Wilson, they realize how much of the other person they can connect to. It may be one of those artificial movie moments but if you love music, it is a moment that you would hope to experience yourself. The creation of music is another place where people can connect to one another. There are several montages of recording sessions that the two of them and their rag tag group of musicians conduct in various NY locations, outdoors with the ambiance of the city as their studio.  Classically trained musicians come together with funk and hip hop artists and street buskers to make the music that our leading lady has written. The A and R guy is a former music producer who knows how to make it work and he brings just the right touches to each song and set up. As a side plot, the music also helps his personal life begin to reconnect as well.

The music industry may take it on the chin with the business model that this story develops. Indie kids and media anarchists will love some of the criticism of the music business. Musicians will I'm sure identify with a number of the secondary characters as they struggle to make it as well. Talent makes out both for those who might be accused of selling out, but also those who hold firm to their convictions. This is a fantasy that aspiring artists will take to heart. I'm moved by music all the time. Themes from movies run through my head, pop songs from my youth are on a continuous loop when I look back at different points in my life. I love hearing a new song that I can connect to. I have never had the talent or the ear that it takes to be effected by music the way these people can be. I've had other passions and I can relate those pretty easily to the comparable points in music. This movie gets it for the most part. I will bet however, that it is going to cost you more than a dollar to get these swell songs on your ipod, phone, media device. That I'm afraid is one truth this fantasy cannot escape for the moment. There was one other piece of truth that the film shares. As Ruffalo's character refrains from drinking at a party, in part to gain control of his life, he instead picks up a can of soda to make his little toast with. I know that the meaning of his next statement is really about drinking soda instead of alcohol, but when he practically spits it out and asks, "how can people drink this shit?" as a loyal Coke brand consumer, I could not help but laugh  out loud and smile knowingly as he looks disgustedly at the can of Pepsi in his hand. Exactly my thought.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Big, loud, stupid and confusing, those pretty much sum up the Transformers movies at this point. Kids who played with the toys or watched the cartoon series may have some stake in what transpires in these films, but the rest of us just go for the spectacle. This episode was longer, the action scenes took up more space, and there were multiple bad guys behind every other moment. I am getting weary of seeing cities destroyed, that is more and more unpleasant. I can't really think of anything to say that would convince you to either see this movie, or to stay away. Analysis of Transformers is similar to trying to teach a pig to sing. It's a waste of your time, and people who like pigs will accuse you of animal cruelty.

I can list a couple of things that I enjoyed about the film: Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, and Mark Wahlberg. These guys bring their A game to an enterprise that doesn't really need them to, but as professionals, they are doing their best to sell the preposterous. Grammer has the thankless role as the heavy, Tucci starts off all bluster and ends up in comic relief, and Wahlberg does earnest hero consistently. T.J. Miller stared off the comic sidekick role but his part is not funny for long.

I enjoyed watching Transformers ride Dinobots into battle, the same way I watched Apes ride horse with machine gins in both hands. I thought to myself, "That looks cool, but is in in the least necessary for the story?...No." Look, the popcorn was good, my Coke Zero was cold and the theater was dark, some days thats all I really need, the movie is almost not an issue, this is one of those days. I laughed a couple of times, but never consistently at the things designed to be funny. It was in 3-D so the Robots keep breaking into pieces and pieces keep flying out at me. I just don't understand why the robots keep working when all their mechanical parts are missing. If something goes wrong in most technology, everything else gets gummed up to. I guess that's just the stupidity, sorry, the magic of Transformers.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


If you are leaning right, you will embrace this film and feel encouraged that someone is articulating views similar to your own. If you lean left, you will understand the views of those who see the world differently than you do, and if you don't care about politics and history, you should go see "Transformers" and wait for this to show up on your cable channels later on. This is a movie that takes some motivation to see because it is not always as polished and cinematic as the commercial films playing in the next theater, and it has a pretty clear agenda, so you know going in that you will be listening to an argument. I will try to focus on the cinematic and story telling elements but inevitably, the argumentative issues will become a part of this post. I write about films here because I want to talk about movies, but when the movie involves politics, I hope people will listen with an open mind, regardless of their political persuasion. 

Dinesh D'Souza is a controversial conservative author, who has turned to making documentary films in the last few years. Two years ago, his film "2016 Obama's America" was a surprise box office hit.  He took his political theory as to the President's agenda, and presented an argument that was easy to follow with a variety of proof that was sometimes convincing and sometimes stretched credulity. In the midst of an election year, it was exciting to see a movie in theaters that came to grips with a political point of view directly. This year is another national election year, but it is not a Presidential election year. Toward the end of the film, you would not know that because D'Souza targets not only the current President but also the most obvious national figure that he sees as a dangerous successor to the President.

Before the film starts making political points however, it has a much broader and I think more acceptable agenda. "America" presents a full-throated defense of American values in contrast to a simmering narrative of the nation that has been percolating for nearly fifty years. Nothing in the film attempts to whitewash the sins of the past, but it does put many of those sins into context and some of them are directly challenged for accuracy. He begins laying out an indictment of America as presented by left leaning and socialist based scholars and activists. While he as the film maker does have control of the editing of the interview sequences, I don't think any of the subjects would deny that he has presented their criticisms accurately. The late Howard Zinn is not interviewed directly but his thoughts are paraphrased for the audience, and again, it seems that no one could object to the interpretation that D'Souza has made of his perspective. Having set out five specific indictments of the American system, D'Souza proceeds to answer each of them with well selected examples, interviews of other relevant public figures and scholars, and some statistical data in the right places. With the exception of Zinn, the approach is largely clinical without a direct attacks on the advocates or the interview subjects from earlier. Zinn on the other hand comes in for some direct criticism from a noted historian who openly mocks some of the "truths" that Zinn has supposedly exposed. The tone is still even handed despite the other professor's clear disdain for Zinn and his history. 

There are some sincere but amateurish theatrical recreations of historical moments to make the points that D'Souza is trying to get across. These add an element that makes the film feel more like a History Channel program than a theatrical feature but they also sell some of the ideas effectively. The one major exception is hinted at in the trailer above. Although the ad asks us to imagine a world without America, and an early hypothetical event shows how this could have happened, it is really not the focus of the film. Occasionally we get to a point where a rhetorical question is posed, but there are no recreations or long sequences that attempt to answer those questions. For two thirds of the movie, the focus is on why the historical views that are promulgated currently are either inaccurate or without context. The most effective parts of the arguments are the counter stories and opinions that are shared. There is a long piece of footage from a press interview with Bono of the band U2, that expresses the feelings that D'Souza and many other Americans have about this country. When the question of American Exceptionalism comes up, this should be one of the first quotes used by defenders of the concept that there is something different about the American character.

The last third of the film returns to more overtly political issues and attempts to link the philosophy that "blames" America to those political figures that the film makers clearly are opposed to. This will be the section of the movie that is most infuriating to partisans on the left, because it  is not subtle about how President Obama and Hillary Clinton are viewed through this political prism. Whether you are convinced or not, it is a plainly stated case and the proof offered by D'Souza is interesting. Challenges to his reasoning are likely to emerge, on the assumption that heads have not exploded at this point and we are not already reduced to name calling. It takes a great deal of fortitude to listen to positions that you vehemently disagree with. You can't respond logically to an argument though if you don't understand it's premises. "America" makes clear what the perspective of many on the conservative side of the national divide is. The campaign law that D'Souza admits he broke in the recent court case is also used as an argument to demonstrate the dangers that the right perceive from the power being accumulated in government hands. While he might not be the poster child that civil libertarians would want to champion, there were plenty of other examples that should disturb anyone, regardless of their political ideology.

I have not read other criticisms of the film yet, as is my custom, I try to see things for myself first. It is not hard however to imagine some of the vitriol this movie will earn from those who disagree with the positions of the film makers. This is a hundred minute film that attempts to cover a broad range of topics at a thematic level rather than a microscopic one. As a result of the broader approach it indulges in some pretty clear appeals to patriotism. Someone is going to jump on this as political propaganda but that misses the point. Propaganda seeks to obscure the truth with imagery or slogans, this uses imagery to make the analysis entertaining and compelling to it's intended audience. That imagery is not merely a token from the clip art book of patriotic pictures. The figures represented have principles that align with the argument. The contrast in narratives is told visually in a film and so some of this is just necessary. I do not remember anyone being shown in a negative light through manipulation of the images. Certainly the editing of some messages may create a negative impression, but the quotes from the President and Senator Warren were not taken out of context. They were explained and used to contrast the  positions of the  two views, not to diminish the advocates. Oliver Stone spent ten episodes extolling the history of Howard Zinn. This film is not as complete, but certainly deserves as much attention as that other enterprise did. It is enlightening to look though more than one view of history.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The original series of the Planet of the Apes films were some on the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction stories of the late sixties and early seventies. They explored themes of war and humanity in a Topsy turvy world where apes were the dominant species on the planet and the films  questioned the wisdom of humans who believed that they could reach the stars but could not stop destroying themselves. We discover that man has destroyed his home and lost the alpha position through nuclear annihilation. In the seventies, at the height of the cold war, that seemed to be the most likely scenario. Almost fifty years later, as the series is being re-booted, the threat to and from man has shifted from destruction in war to elimination by biotechnology. As we become more and more dependent on technology and the size of the planet shrinks due to easy transportation and open access to other countries, the threat shifts to disease and technology as the most likely pitfall for the human race. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a zombie apocalypse story with apes replacing the zombies and a new cold war developing between species. This new series again raises provocative questions about humanity, war, and nature.

In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", the mutation that leads to a more dominant simian species is found in a laboratory. Cesar is the result of an experiment to fight Alzheimer's disease, the experiment results in an ape that can bridge the gap between animal instinctive behavior and reasoning type thinking. This sets up the current story by allowing the apes to populate a section of the Bay area (I assume it is Point Reyes)  while thousands of human survivors of of what they dubbed the "Simian Flu", struggle to rebuild civilization after more than ninety five percent of the human population has died. The story picks up ten years after the plague and shows us once again how human need for technology can be threatening to the peace of the planet. I appreciated that this part of the story was more subtle and less moralizing than it could have been. There are also dark hints about what happens to the human population when technology breaks down. It appears that civilization requires a certain amount of sophistication and technical ability or the result is brutality and savagery become the social structure.

The ideas of the film and the story itself are quite admirable and are enough to recommend the movie. I do have a bit of a reservation that I hope will be taken in the proper spirit as opposed to a direct criticism of the film makers. I recognize that the apes are still in a primitive developmental form. They communicate at the beginning of the movie using a sign language that Cesar has taught them. When the first utterance of a word by an ape occurs, it is a dramatic moment. During the rest of the film, the apes use a combination of spoken and sign language, and the spoken language is the issue that concerns me. To paraphrase "Spinal Tap", "It's a fine line between stupid and clever". The Tarzan lingo sounds like Indians in a western from the 30s at times. If people can suspend their disbelief for the apes developing a more sophisticated civilization, than most will be able to do so for this communication process. In an attempt to make the transition to a new culture more realistic, the screenwriters have relied on a tool that can easily be mocked. Later in the movie, as an ape rides a horse, through a wall of fire, with machine guns blasting from both hands, it is a cool visual moment, but it also invites another opportunity to mock the seriousness of the tale. Once again, I think the tightrope is strong enough to sustain those willing to go along but I can imagine that this would be rich territory for parody down the road. 

Jason Clarke is an actor that I have become familiar with in the last couple of years. As his career has grown, the parts have put him into movies that I am now likely to see. He seems to have had an extensive career prior to 2012, but with "Lawless", "Zero Dark Thirty", "The Great Gatsby" and "White House Down", I know now that I have seen him before. Andy Serkis is still the lead of the movie, but Clarke has to be the character we place our trust in and he manages to convey decency in a world where that standard is not always valued. Serkis again does a marvelous job with the motion capture work. It's great that he is getting steady work in big films but it must be a little frustrating that almost no one would recognize him from those movies. (On the other hand, it may be a great delight to have that anonymity). Gary Oldman is the biggest name in the movie and he is not really a star despite being one of our best actors and being featured in some of the biggest movies of the last fifteen years. This is not a star vehicle and Oldman plays his role effectively, although he is absent from the story for more than eighty percent of the film. I also appreciated that he was not cast as a villainous human bent on war with the apes. That humanity contributed to the bitterness that prompts the outburst of violence that comes, it was refreshing to see the screen writers acknowledge that the emerging ape community will suffer the same pressures and failures that humans did. It speaks to a more universal truth than simply saying "humans are asses that will destroy the world".

The army of apes is matched only by the army of technical credits listed to bring them to the screen. In some ways the depiction of the apes here is so technically superior to the masks of the seventies films, that it could render those movies quaint relics of their time. There is still something unnatural about the CGI creatures that sometimes makes the film feel a bit mechanical, but then there are bits like the newborn son of Cesar, interacting with the humans, that will make the barriers between CGI and animals or actors disappear. The film tells an exciting and thoughtful story with enough action to keep a broad audience involved, and a more thoughtful audience challenged. That is a second balancing act that has been managed here. I like the fact that the titles at the start of the films ape (yes I made that joke) the font from the original series. So far, the two story lines of the two versions of the franchise have managed to coexist. The story is set up for further development and doubtlessly, "Rule of the Planet of the Apes" will be coming to a theater near you sometime in 2017.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Every few years a movie comes along that focuses on food and makes you want to eat, now. I remember seeing "Like Water for Chocolate" and hoping I could find a Mexican place that cooked food like that. When I saw "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" I wanted to consume foods that I had never heard of before. "Big Night" romances Italian food so much that it might be better to eat than to fall in love. Hell, even food made by a rat was appealing a few years ago. This movie sits in that tradition. Nearly every scene will have your mouth watering in hopes that this restaurant, or food truck, or just that guy, would appear on the scene and you'd be able to enjoy a meal that reminds everyone why people watch the Food Network in the first place.

Along with the great looking food, there is a nice story here about living your passion. Chef Carl has a history of promise but a present of so what? When an opportunity to impress a food critic goes wrong, he must figure out how to restore his status as a Chef and balance his personal life, especially with the son he has neglected since divorcing the kid's Mom. This story will not surprise you. It goes exactly where you think it is going to end up. It does take that journey in an entirely charming and entertaining path, so even though you know the destination, the journey is still worth your time.

Jon Favreau has cast himself in the movie that he wrote and directed. It is a nice return to the indie roots that he has not haunted much since directing some pretty big films in the last few years. For my money, he is a great storyteller and makes a picture worthwhile without special effects and big budgets. He is however helped by some star power. Dustin Hoffman shows up for a couple of scenes to create a motivation to get out of the rut the chef has been stuck in. Scarlett Johansson buts in a little time as a minor character that gets as stimulated as we do by the process of creating great food. Robert Downey Jr. appears in one scene, steals focus for the whole sequence and than leaves us with a sense that the world is a weird place. The standouts however are not the big names but the more modestly familiar. Sophia Vergara is the most wonderful ex-spouse a person could have. If there is a flaw in the script, it is that we have no idea why the two exes are no longer together. They understand one another better than anyone else in the story. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are terrific background characters. In the second half of the movie Leguizamo steps out a bit more and the movie is better for it. Emjay Anthony is a young kid playing a young kid. He has a pretty good part and shows a nice amount of promise. Finally, Oliver Platt is in the movie, and he is wonderful in the role of a food critic that pushes the story forward.

Several other elements about the story make it a little more unique. There is a solid little critique of social media culture contained in many segments of the movie. There is also a very good demonstration of the power that culture can have for the benefit of people as well. That benefit is not just limited to the economic process of connecting with customers, but also finding ways to connect with human beings. I appreciated that it was not a complete satire on the on-line world. It should be a good reminder to everyone that what you spill onto the net, is going to stay there and all of us should be cautious with that responsibility.

"Chef" is great counter-programming for the summer. In a season filled with sequels that are not as great as we might want, and original blockbusters that are loud and somewhat crude, it is great to have these smaller films that get by on wit and charm to make the summer days more passable. This movie will be a crowd pleaser, but the crowds will be moderately sized. I've been trying to get to it since it opened at the end of may, so for many of you I am late to the party. I feel satisfied by that because this was a good mid-summer bracer and leaves me hopeful that other films will come along and charm me for the rest of the year as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Jersey Boys

Let's do a checklist to start with.

Do I like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons?      Yes
Do I like Clint Eastwood as a Director?                Yes
Did I like the stage version of Jersey Boys?          Yes
Do I love musical films?                                        Yes
Did I like the Movie Version of the story?             For the most part

For the record, my wife loved the movie and does not have any of the reservations that I have except for one. I'll tell you what that is at the end of this post, but for most of the film I had a great time and enjoyed the songs, staging and look of the movie. It does lack something and I'm having a hard time articulating it but I will try. Some musicals can expand and fill a screen with color and dance and energy as a way of opening up the stage bound version of the play. An intimate story like this suffers a little from being so close on the characters and by keeping the structure of having each of the "Seasons" narrate different parts of the story, Eastwood and the screenwriters (who also did the book of the musical) remind us that this is a theatrical piece more than a film. The energy of a movie is different and the transitions and storytelling work in completely different ways than in a stage musical. The reverse is true as well, "Beauty and the Beast" as a film flowed like a stream over a perfect hillside and into our hearts. The stage version feels like it is a wave engulfing us in it's musical tropes. It is a different experience and for me not as satisfying.

"Jersey Boys" the movie tells the same story of the rise of a group of New Jersey delinquents to pop stardom and the tribulations they go through. The songs are worked into the story as part of the backstage process but the songs don't tell the story as in a traditional musical, they just highlight moments from the story. It worked on stage pretty well because it is done in a minimalist style. The mind's eye fills in the blank spaces and connects the dots. In a film, all of that is done for you and the songs stand out as non organic parts of the film. They are not what the story is about. This is not a hodgepodge "Frankenstein" creation like "Rock of Ages" or "Mama Mia", which strech songs that already exist to fit them into a story. These songs are distinct and could be performed at any point in the story. They only advance the story by their success or style, not by their subject.(The one exception being "Oh What a Night", which is tied into an event early in their careers but the song came later in the history of the band).

The integration of the songs into the film is smooth and the staging in several scenes is excellent. The first performance of "Sherry" was choreographed in the style of pop groups at the time and looked terrific. The Ed Sullivan performance was also a standout scene, it was another one that advanced the story but the song mattered not. The staged version in a nightclub of the debut of "Can't Take My Eyes off of You" was also special. When the big band horn section comes in with a curtain revel, it sends chills through the audience on screen and in the theater. The end credits seemed to have the things that a musical needs, choreography from the whole cast, a willingness to suspend disbelief and everyone sings. If the whole movie had been like that, it would have been different enough from the play that it would stand out. It feels like they played it pretty safe by sticking closely to the style of the play and that';s where I think my reservations are for the most part.

The great Christopher Walken appears as a mob connected guardian angel, but that old song and dance guy does not get to do much until the credit sequence. I assume the guys in the lead roles are the actors from the Broadway version of the play because I did not recognize any of them and they are all talented singers and performers. Their acting styles seem to emphasize stage theatrics more than film acting. The reunion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction is a good example of what I mean. They let staging, costuming and body language do the acting. The makeup conveys the passage of time rather than their facial expressions. That reservation that I mentioned that my wife shared with me has to do with the make-up. I did not see Clint's much derided film on J.Edgar Hoover, but the biggest criticism I remember reading was of the make-up job on Leo. I guess Clint is not very focused on this aspect of the film because the make-up work here was not very convincing. Even though it is not supposed to last long since we flashback almost immediately to the younger versions of the actors, I think the depiction of them as older needs to be convincing, and it was not.

All in all I liked the movie but I can't enthusiastically say I loved it. There are moments that impressed me but there were several times when the picture was just not working the way a film should. I applaud Clint for trying his hand at a musical. He doesn't embarrass himself, but I suspect that the remake of "A Star is Born" that he has been connected to will probably need more than Beyonce to get made.

AMC Classic Series: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka on Wednesday at AMC. Could not talk the wife into accompanying me to the theater which is weird because she loves the movie and it is hot out today. Of course the fact that we were up till late in the morning after going to the Kiss concert may have had something to do with it. I on the other hand have no self control even though I too an tired. I'm going to link to my official post from the movie a day project in 2010. I do have a few extra comments to make however and I plan on being brief. There are only two other parties here to enjoy this classic on a Wednesday afternoon. Still, it seems hopeful.

After watching this I have decided that at my funeral, I want to be dressed in a purple, velvet set of tails, a copper colored top hat and a brocade waistcoat. Willy Wonka rocks the fashion scene. On the way back into town we stopped in Vegas overnightand I dropped a twenty into the Willie Wonka slot machine. It is a little strange to use a kids movie to pick an adults pocket, but of course it is targeted at baby boomers with nostalgic genes like me. When the Oompa Loompas come out for the bonus, it's as if you are one of the naughty children on the tour and they make an example of you. 

Peter Ostrum, who plays Charlie, reminds me of my friend Johnathan Yenny when he was a little boy. He is serious but has a ready smile, and is willing to help in any way he can, and he is a dead ringer at the same age. The part of Charlie was cast very well in this film, and his scene at the end when he swallows his pride and shame and does the right thing is all the more effective because he was not a child actor like the other kids but just seemed like a real little boy. Gene Wilder just turned 83, and he is missed on the big screen and the small. There are plenty of other films of his that I need to catch up on, like "The World's Greatest Lover", but he will always be identified as the magical Mr. Wonka in my head. 

 I've probably violated some federal law by taking a picture of the movie while it is playing, but it was a lovely scene and I wanted everyone to know that it really was up on the full sized screen.

For some reason, my original comments on the movie are one of the most viewed pages each week on the blog, so it is not hard to find. It might even be listed over on the right side of the home page, but if it is not, just click here and you will be transported by the Wonkavator immediately to that post to finish your visit. Sorry, no lifetime supply of chocolate comes with your visit, just a lifetime of warmth and good memories.