Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ghostbusters: 30th Anniversary Release

Something wonderful happened today. I don't know if it was simply the selection of the theater, the holiday weekend, or that I've been going to movies at the wrong time. We went to a screening of "Ghostbusters" and there were maybe two dozen people in the screening we were at, but the theater complex, which has 18 screens was packed! It reminded me of twenty years ago when the weekend crowds at the movies would be thick with families and couples and everyone was in line for a ticket, concessions or the bathroom. After reading several stories this week about how miserable the box office was this summer, it was refreshing to see that the movie business did not look like it was dying.

"Ghostbusters" is a movie that I covered extensively just a couple of months ago on my companion site, "30 Years On". For the full scope on the film you can click on any of the links on this page, including the poster below. Please come by and share your thoughts on that site if you can. I will say that the movie was again, great. Bill Murray is a national treasure. Also there are bits and pieces that you might notice on a forty foot screen that you miss on your home theater system. I noticed a second foreshadowing reference to the Stay Puft Marshmallow man that I missed before. There is a fading painted advertisement on the wall of a building that showed up much more clearly in this screening.

I heard people a couple of spots back from us in line to buy tickets, talking about the movie. The woman said she'd rather see a thirty year old film that she knew was good than "Lucy" which she heard was not. I've not seen "Lucy" myself so I will withhold judgement, but I can say that seeing "Ghostbusters" on the big screen was a good choice, and the price was a bargain at our theater, $6. It's going to play for the rest of the week, so you have plenty of chances to see it, don't blow the opportunity. I know it seems like you are paying for a commercial for the new Blu-ray release, but it's the best two hour commercial you will ever see.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

If I Stay

I don't know what I was doing at this movie. It is a teen romance/weepy and it has zero surprises to it. The lead actor is an interesting face without any detectable acting talent. The film plays like a promo for the album by the fictional band that is featured in the story and the soundtrack is full of pop music trying to pass itself off as indie-cool. Some of the dialogue in this sounds like it was directly taken from the young adult book that the film is based on and in this case it is not good. I thought "The Fault in our Stars" earlier this summer was dolorously depressing. This movie lays on the sadness with a trowel that is not subtle at all.

Ultimately, the reason I saw this is that I am a fan of Chloë Grace Moretz . As "Hit Girl" she has been one of my favorite characters in movies in the last ten years. She was great in "Hugo" and last year in "Carrie" she held her own. She is growing into a lovely young woman, and that probably makes me sound like a dirty old man but it's not like that. I think she is talented and I hope she has a successful career. She is very good in this movie but the material does feel far below her. This movie is made for young girls to fantasize and cry over and from what I heard in the theater, it appears to work for them.

A high school girl, who feels awkward and a bit of an outsider, has a loving relationship with her parents, falls for a mysterious guy from the Northwest, and has to make a life or death decision for herself. Take out the sparkling vampires and that is essentially what this movie is. Instead of deciding if she wants to live forever as a blood sucker, she has to choose whether to go into the light and stop living all together. There are so many teen novel cliches in this story that it might have been assembled by a computer program. The boy is an aspiring musician/rock star, she is a cellist thinking of applying to Julliard, her parents are former punk rockers living the middle class life but carrying a torch for the Clash. Oh, and it all takes place in Portland which apparently has not had a sunny day in the last twenty years. Every party is fantastic and nothing is unusual about all of the people at the party breaking out in singing an indie type song that mirrors some of the emotions the central character is going through.

I can't really give away more spoilers than the trailer does. All that she knows is taken away in an instant and she lingers in the hospital as a spirit that has to choose whether the bliss of heaven is more inviting than the burgeoning rock star that pines over her. The few moments that actually did move me are provided by veteran actor Stacey Keach. He was terrific as the unpleasant friend from the old neighborhood last year in "Nebraska". He plays Chloe's Gramps in the movie and he has a pretty emotional scene in the hospital room with her but an even better one in a flashback scene when he brings her back home from her audition for Julliard. His line delivery in the truck was excellent and it was one of the few moments when the movie reaches the kinds of emotions that it is striving for.

This will not be something I will ever need to see again. It wasn't something I needed to see now. It is not a bad movie, just a tired one and it is not really made for me. Someone out there will appreciate it, but they will be forty years younger and have one more X chromosome than I do.Chloë Grace Moretz  will go on to better things and this morose music will never assault my ears again. I'm not sure what the young actor in the film will do, to paraphrase the Mom in this movie he'll either get better or disappear.

What If

Daniel Radcliffe is the sad but wiseacre Wallace and Zoe Kazan is the cute as a button but unavailable Chantry in this whimsical romantic comedy adapted from a stage play named "Toothpaste and Cigars". This is a sort of "When Harry Met Sally" for the millennials. The question being, can a man and a woman be friends without the romantic complications? Since this is a romantic comedy the answer is inevitably no, butgetting to that answer is what makes the movie interesting.

The biggest weakness of the movie as a story is also it's biggest strength. The dialogue is laden with quick witted quips, references to poetry and literature and rapid fire verbal exchanges. In real life no one talks this way. Yes, people are funny, but they are not that consistently funny for an entire evening much less the whole of the relationship. It sometimes sounds like an extended sitcom with very clever writers having a great time putting funny words in the mouths of their characters. Listening to it can be charming but it will never pass the smell test when it comes to sincerity and honesty. If you wanted that though, you would just stay at home and have a conversation with your spouse, lover or friends. We go to the movies to be entertained  (at least for the most part) and we want the characters to sound interesting as they speak. These characters sound interesting. They say amusing things and say them in interesting ways. There is one quick scene where the two are playing ping pong and the path of the ball and it's velocity is not as sharp or quick as the exchanges between the two leads.

Wallace is one year out of a serious relationship break up that forced him to drop out of medical school. Chantry is in a five year live in relationship with Ben, a man she really does love. They meet at Allan's party, she is his cousin and he was the college room mate. They hit it off immediately and the level of attraction between them is visible on screen. The two actors are awkward, nice looking and they play the uncomfortable moments extremely well. Chantry finally accepts that maybe she and Wallace can be friends and gives him her number. He is more realistic and thinks that it would be wrong to pursue a relationship with her when she is involved with someone else. However, after a second cute meet sequence they toss caution to the wind and decide to be friends. When Wallace comes over to have dinner with her and Ben and her sister Dalia, things go hysterically wrong in one of the most amusing bits of slapstick I've seen this year.

The path the two take for the rest of the movie is pretty standard but it is littered with brilliant conversation. Allan counsels Wallace on his options and the paraphrasing of all the advice is too the point and funny. A secondary relationship between Allan and Nicole, a girl he met at the same party as earlier feels a lot like the Carrie Fisher/Bruno Kirby relationship in "When Harry Met Sally". They want Wallace to get off the stick and go for it with Chantry. Meanwhile, Chantry has to dissuade her girlfriends and sister from pursuing Wallace too strongly.  The mixed motives are part of the fun but also part of the cliche. Completely separate from all of this is the living situation Wallace is in, staying in his single sister's house and being something of a male role model for her eight year old son. When Wallace baby sits during his sister's date, he and his nephew do the exact opposite of what she told him to do, that includes watching the great "John Carpenter's: The Thing". Any movie that has that as a reference and also has the balls to use "The Princess Bride" in the way it is used here has something going for it.

All of the actors do a great job and the movie looks nice. There is a soundtrack filled with contemporary music that seems to be standard for modern love stories. There are plenty of laughs and you will discover an actress that is unconventionally pretty and should have big things in store for her. Radcliffe shows that he is not just the boy who lived but can be a romantic lead in the quirky off center way that most romances now take. They have not reinvented the wheel here, they have just managed to make go around one more time quite pleasantly. You probably won't remember much about the movie but you will enjoy the hundred minutes yo spent watching it.

The Giver

Most films with a dystopian theme follow an action based plot. The list of such films is a long one, from "Planet of the Apes" to "The Hunger Games", the central figures in these stories confront a world that is vastly different than our own and they fight against it in some way. "The Giver" has the same concept but there is a very different plotline and purpose. In "The Hunger Games" the focus is on a competition and most of the second half involves a battle to the death with high amounts of tension. "Logan's Run" is a chase movie that switches the role of the purser to that of the pursued. There are a few action beats in "The Giver" and there is a chase, but all of that takes place near the end of the picture and it is an attempt to resolve the quandary faced by the society, it is not really the reason the picture exists. This story is about an idea. It asks us to consider questions of morality and face the issue of what it means to be free.

Freedom from want, from pain, from loss are all appealing utopian principles. The notion that everyone would be treated equitably and that the inconvenience of life changing decision making would be out of our hands might seem a good one. Who would not want to live in a world where all are treated politely and they have their needs provided for them? The trouble with all utopian visions is that they come at a cost and that cost is likely to be unacceptable when viewed from a different angle. Brenton Thwaites is a young Australian actor who has the lead role in the story. He is Jonas, a newly minted eighteen year old who is given a special job in the community that he lives in. This position is a once in a generation role that requires a great deal of strength to handle. The information that he will be responsible for is critical to the society that he lives in but it is also potentially devastating. Jonas will be trained in his role by a counterpart, an elder of the community who has held the position that he is embarking on. The title role is played by Jeff Bridges.

Between the two actors, there has to be an effective bond to make the emotions of the story resonate. Thwaites is eager and innocent, Bridges is tired and emotionally burned out. When we buy into the concept of the story, it is easy to understand the two roles. The nearly exhausted candle needs to be replaced with a fresher, more sturdy model. The difficulty comes in whether or not we should even keep functioning under this system. As Jonas learns more, sees more and feels more about the world that preceded the community he lives in, he questions the sacrifice that his world has made to have the bucolic existence it enjoys. The pain of discovering his "fathers" true role in the society and the complete lack of moral awareness that Jonas himself now has becomes the trigger for the climax of the film. Before all of this happens however, a long series of possibilities, missed opportunities and dysfunctional living conditions has to be revealed.

Phillipe Noyce is the director of this film. I first knew who he was from the 1989 thriller "Dead Calm". He directed the Harrison Ford versions of the Tom Clancy stories. He has been an effective story teller but not a particularly distinctive visualist. With this movie I think he has stepped outside of his comfort zone and created a strong visual style to accompany the storyline. This movie borrows from "Pleasantville" in a pretty direct way but not in a manner that seems cheap or obvious. The black and white cinematography that dominates the majority of the story is subdued. You might not even realize the film is in black and white until small pieces of color start to intrude. Although it is a Science Fiction story with a fully realized alternative universe, the special effects and set design are also subtle, which makes the film feel more like a story about ideas than an action film.

Meryl Streep is the Chief Elder of the community. She might be seen as the villain but she is simply playing the role her character has in the community. None of the members of the community except fore The Giver and Jonas, have any conception of how the world they live in is twisted. Jonas manages to connect in an emotional way with two friends. Those two friends become important to the plot as they are given the chance to peek behind the communities protective skirts and at least vaguely perceive some of the emptiness that their lives have. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are Jonas parents. They have a concerned and supportive attitude toward Jonas but the real emotions that a parent might be expected to have are effectively masked by the role relationship they are expected to play in the community. Even toward the climax, the conflict between Jonas and the world he lives in is not a personalized one but rather one of ideas. The only time the film falls more into the action style conflict cliche is when The Giver and The Elders at the end are participating in a ritual to "release" Jonas romantic interest from the community. The Giver seems to be arguing and resiting in a courtroom style setting, even though that is not the purpose of the scene.

Singer Taylor Swift has a brief role in the film and it provides some context to why The Giver himself feels that a change in the order of things is needed. This is a thought provoking story that was a young adult novel from twenty years ago. The book has been used in thousands of classes since then and the story may seem old hat to the current generation but I never read it and it was refreshing and very inspiring. My expectations for the film were moderate but the execution and the story make this one of the films from the summer that deserve to be remembered past the opening weekend. 

Steven Spielberg Blogathon: Directing Actors

Steven Spielberg is rightly credited with being the most effective visualizer of stories working in the last forty years. He took a liability like a non-functioning mechanical shark and managed to create an extremely visceral film out of it. That "Jaws" works is largely a function of his ability to feel how a movie will play to an audience. He took the extra step when making that film, of shooting additional material in the pool of one of his collaborators, to get the audience reaction right. The opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a litany of visual and emotional elements from the Saturday serialized films of the Golden Age, but updated and intensified as only Spielberg has been able to manage. The brutality and honesty of the first half hour of "Saving Private Ryan" is a testament to being able to connect with an audience's emotions in the strongest possible ways. Plenty of horror films have been as graphic and disturbing, but none have carried the power of those horrifying images the way that this World War II film managed to do.

Many have criticized his sentimentality in visual language. "Warhorse" although successful has been savaged by some for the Spielberg palate of color, lighting and cinematography. Had the film been made by someone other than Spielberg, it would be seen as a piece of artistic achievement rather than a three handkerchief cash grab. Some pretty picky elements of "War of the Worlds" earned that film scorn from some, even as it delivers the kind of frenzied panic and fear that audiences had not experienced since "Jaws" thirty years before it. He was hammered again for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" for letting CGI and Shia LeBeof come between the fans of the series and the story being told. The same creative elements in "Minority Report", at least the visual ones, become a source of strife in other pictures. Like all artists, he cannot please every audience every time. There is one skill that he has managed to use consistently, without the same kind of criticism his visualization of a story sometimes gets. That talent is the directing of actors to excellence on the screen. Some of the finest performances over the last four decades have come from actors working with Steven Spielberg.

It is true that a talented actor can pull the weight of a movie on their shoulders and carry it for the audience, but they can only do that with a supportive director who knows what the story counts on. With young actors or inexperienced film actors, the role of the director is even more important. George Lucas has a great instinct for what looks good on screen. He can tell a story that will pull the audience in most of the time, but he does not seem to have the right touch with actors in the same way that Spielberg does. Martin Scorsese develops a troop of actors to work with and as they tune into him, they become more and more reflective of his sensibility. Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DeCaprio have worked with Scorsese on multiple projects. Spielberg has only one actor that he has featured in more than three films (Unless you are pretending that Crystal Skull does not exist). People may not realize it but Tom Hanks has only been directed by Spielberg three times in a starring part. To get a great performance out of a great actor is still difficult. There are plenty of pairings that did not pan out, but Spielberg manages to get actors in the right frame of mind, to give them the space to do their best work or maybe he just exerts enough control to stifle the actors excesses.

Casting and script are part of the process as well. I don't mean to suggest that Spielberg can magically turn a marginal performer into an Olivier, but he can make sure that the right actor is in the part and that their strengths are played to. A good example is Christopher Walken.
Walken is an actor loved for his eccentricities and quirks in delivery. He may be the most imitated actor around because his voice and mannerisms are so distinctive and therefore more easy to imitate. In "Catch Me If You Can" he gives an Academy Award nominated performance that is largely successful because the usual quirks are held to a minimum. Instead of being a cartoon, which is how he is usually used in movies, Walken is given a chance to be a real human being. His flaws are not overplayed and the natural way in which he interacts with the other performers is far different than, oh let's say, his three minutes in "Pulp Fiction". Spielberg knows what he wants from his actors and it appears from the product that he knows how to get it.

He is perhaps best known as a director of actors for his work with children. The main child performances in "E.T." are the source of this reputation. Henry Thomas is the lead, and he carries the movie, but he could not have done it without the help of a patient director. I recently watched Thomas's next film, "Cloak and Dagger" and while he is a good screen presence, he lacks the depth and naturalness that came from working with a knowledgeable actors director. It had to have helped the kids immensely to have shot the film in continuity so the kids always knew where they were in the story for their performances.  Christian Bale delivers an amazing child performance in "Empire of the Sun". Both of these young men are talented performers but it took Bale almost twenty more years to break thorough as a widely recognized acting powerhouse. Both of these films depend on the child performer to carry the picture. Unless you are cast because you are cute, hot or a well known commodity, it is hard to imagine a kid without a strong director being able to hold an audience in their hands.  
His one obvious failure in this area was with "Hook" which was filled with so many kids that most of them don't get a chance to have personality and those that do are burdened with the broadest kinds of direction possible. Maybe Charlie Korsmo was adequate in his role but the other kids ran over Spielberg with their quirks. On the other hand, the kids in "Jurassic Park" are excellent, and you will believe Haley Joel Osment is an android.

Spielberg has had the advantage of working with many established stars but it is the first time or novice performers that he has been able to get the most out of. First time stars Oprah Winfrey, Whoopie Goldberg, and journeyman actress Margaret Avery were nominated for the Academy Award in their first major roles. Directors get credit for so many things on the set that they may have little input on but the one thing they have the most control over is the casting and performance of the actors. Sometimes the director does get lucky. In the movie "Lincoln", Spielberg had had his heart set on Liam Neeson for the title role at first, but as time went on, minor differences emerged in how the two saw the character being portrayed. After the project was repeatedly put on hold Nesson bowed out. I have no doubt that he would have given a towering performance but when Daniel Day-Lewis is your fallback casting, and he is driven to make the character come to life, fortune has smiled on you.
I've not read enough to know how important Spielberg was to Day-Lewis' performance, but I do know they kept late hours and shared information and inspiration even in the middle of the night. It is an interesting piece of trivia to note that of the dozen actors Spielberg directed to Academy nominations, Daniel Day-Lewis is the only one to have actually won.

Tom Cruise made two appearances in Spielberg films as distraught fathers. He has to sell the characters demons and weaknesses in both films while also handling an incredibly physical performance in front of green screens and doing stunt work. If you compare his performances in "Minority Report" and "War of the Worlds" to other roles in action films, there is a level of quality to those performances that certainly was enhanced by working with Spielberg. Nothing in "Oblivion" comes close to the anguish that Cruise displays when confronting the pre-crime scenario that John Anderson goes through as he confronts the man he believes took his child. Because this performance is buried in an action film it is easy to overlook the quality of work that the two of them achieved here.

 While all three leads in the movie "Jaws" were excellent, there are two performances that stand out. The flashy role and the greatest match of actor to part I can think of is the pairing of Robert Shaw with the character Quint. At least four sets of hands were on the script for the famous monologue, Spielberg knew what words mattered and enhanced the performance with camera work and sound design that makes that moment one of the essential film scenes ever.  The second performance is one that is often overlooked, Roy Scheider as Chief Brody is subtle and sometimes heartbreaking. Spielberg knows how long to let some of those moments linger in time. The dinner table scene is a wonderful example of the creativity that can come out when the director and the actor work together.

" an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”--Steven Spielberg

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Expendables 3

Two reactions are typical when talking about an "Expendables" movie; "Damn is that awesome" or "Damn is that Pathetic". I happen to fall into the former category, so if you fit into the later, you can pretty much skip this, it is not going to fit your world view. Aging action stars plus plenty of shootouts plus bad jokes equals two hours of fun in August as far as I've gone with these flicks. There is not any real artistry, the plots are boiler plate and the outcome is inevitable. These are comfort food for people who miss Bob's Big Boy and Hair Metal. Sometimes there is a nice new element to make the movie interesting and to keep us coming back. This movie has three or four of those elements.

I rarely spend more than a sentence or two describing plot in any of my reviews, I don't like spoilers. With a movie like this, it is even simpler because the plot is so direct. The team must take down a rogue former member who has turned evil arms dealer. That's it. Sure more happens and there are some justifications for jumping into a new set of recruits and bringing the old crew back, but it is straight get the bad guy stuff. What does help is that the bad guy this time is Mel Gibson. With all the baggage he has accumulated in the last few years, he has not been a regular screen presence. That's too bad because he is quite good and charismatic on screen, whether playing a hero or the baddie. The three Expendable movies have been slowly creeping up in the quality of the antagonist. Eric Roberts in the first film was fine but did not get much development. Jean- Claude Van Damme was more successful because his showdown with Stallone is the epic climax of the movie. Gibson gives the movie a sense of credibility it would not otherwise deserve and his dialogues with the team contain the right kind of ominous threat to keep our expectations high.

Also joining the cast and classing up the franchise is Harrison Ford.  In the 80s, Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the brawn of action movies. They were the guys who kicked butt. Gibson and Ford were the brains of action movies. Their films had plot twists and sophistication and did not rely on brute strength to get the mission accomplished. Ford shows up as the replacement for Bruce Willis's character in the movie. He treats the script with more seriousness than anyone would think is possible and raises the bar on the believability scale. In the long run it may be a futile effort, but it doesn't end up like it is just stunt casting, even though there is an amusing line about what became of Agent Church.

The unique part of this film is the recruitment of a younger generation of Expendables whose loss  Barney will not feel as much. The selection process involves another old friend, Kelsey Grammer. Channeling a rougher version of Frasier Crane, Grammer gets in some funny lines and a little bit of pop psychology to go with all the nonsense. Stealing the show by playing the dangerous buffoon is Antonio Banderas. Having watched "Desperado" just a day ago, I can say his action bonafides are in order. His comedy chops from "Puss in Boots" appear to be in good working shape as well. Four other young actors are tossed in, it would seem with the intention of carrying on the series when it will look too odd to have grandad diving through a window with a Howitzer under his arm. Wesley Snipes is introduced as another former colleague who has been away from the action scene for a while. The main justification for his presence is the joke about what he was doing prison time for in the third world country the team breaks him out of.

I understand that someone might say they were tired of the same old, same old. If you seek creativity and innovation in your action film, move along, there is nothing for you here. Those of us who do not mind a lot of the familiar and enjoy a big chunk of cheese with our weekend fix of adrenaline, will appreciate the continuing adventures of the old timers. Yeah they look a little long in the tooth, but they also look like they could take most of us out in twenty seconds or less. Until they reach my level of physical prowess, I'm still willing to go along for the ride.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rock and Roll Night at the Movies: The T.A.M.I. Show

Well it was a full evening and although the T.A.M.I. Show was the film for the night, there were several other elements to make this a full night of entertainment and information. The American Cinematheque is presenting a series of films on early Rock and Roll over the course of four nights. This was the presentation scheduled for last night. addition to the screening, before the movie, legendary music journalist and historian Harvey Kubernik was going to be in the lobby, signing copies of his latest book on the L.A. music scene. The tome is a sprawling look at the music era in the City of Angels  from 1956 to 1972. It is filled with pictures and stories and historical tidbits that should wet the appetite of any Rock fan out there.  I was not able to see on the Cinematheque site whether it was going to be available for purchase at the show, so to make sure I did not show up empty handed, I bought one on line a week before the event. I felt a little bad because Larry Edmonds Bookstore was there with several copies for sale and I cheated them out of the chance to get my money. I'd have been happy to support that local institution had I known. There was an advantage to getting the book early however, and that was that I could get through the foreword, written by Tom Petty, and the first couple of chapters before I got a chance to meet Mr. Kubernik. He could not have been nicer and he shared stories with several fans who were lined up to get their books (and even those who did not buy a book).
Signing my copy even though I bought it on-line
As a bonus, Eric from Hollywood Book and Poster, a store that I have haunted since the late seventies, was also in the lobby, selling pictures of Rock acts, posters from Rock shows of the era, and old copies of music magazines from the late sixties. He was also sharing stories about Rock acts that he had seen and told one about Lesley Gore, who had had seen in concert recently. He told me that after 37 years and three Hollywood locations, they were finally closing up shop in the real world because the rents were so high. He did say they were planning some events for the end of the year so I hope to be able to report back on some of those before January comes and their store only exists in cyberspace.

The biggest pleasure of the evening was getting to visit with my Southern California blogging colleague Michael from "It Rains...You Get Wet". We connected through the defunct "Fogs Movie Reviews" and share some local history between us. I'd met him in person earlier this year at another event at the Egyptian Theater, and it was his Facebook notice that had alerted me to this evenings event. Michael sat with us in the back row and before the movie started we talked about some other musical films that have been in theaters lately. Both of us are enthusiastic about the James Brown biopic, "Get On Up". We also liked the screen version of "Jersey Boys" with certain reservations. I will be contributing to the Blogathon on Steven Spielberg that he is co-hosting on his site along with Aurora of CITIZEN SCREENINGS aka @CitizenScreen and Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED aka @IrishJayhawk66. He asked about the post I was working on, and my daughter Amanda will also be posting something if she can get it done in time. She was with us and chirped in on an interesting subject. Apparently the Alamo Drafthouse is going to open a location here in downtown Los Angeles, and she said it will be directly connected to the subway system, so you won't even have to leave the station to make it to the new venue. It was a congenial halfhour begore the movie started.

The movie was introduced by director John Landis, the man responsible for "Animal House" and "An American Werewolf in London". As a thirteen year old kid, he actually attended the T.A.M.I. concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. He told a couple of stories about that experience but he was coming back after the movie for a discussion so he kept the intro as short as he could. The movie started and right away you could get a sense of excitement because the volume was up and the audience at the actual concert was screaming like crazy. There was a huge amount of energy being expended by the mostly teen audience in 1964. The show was filmed as if it was being shot for live television using four cameras with the action being directed from a production booth. The concert was shot over two days and all the performers were there for both days of the live action.

The show opens with a bus ride where the performers are cutting up as they make their way to the venue, there is also some street action as the hosts of the show "Jan and Dean" skateboard their way to the auditorium. Chuck Berry is the first performer and he plays it loud and loose. As he is doing his version of his song "Maybellene", "Gerry and the Pacemakers" segue way into their take on the song. Gerry had quite the rakish smile and seemed at times to be flirting with the girls in the audience. Chuck Berry and the Pacemakers traded songs for several moments and were joyfully joined on stage by a band of dancers that were choreographed in a variety of 60s style dance moves. Most of the time the moves seemed enthusiastic and an extension of the performance, once in a while they were obtrusive and distracting. The dancers were featured in many of the performances but not all of them.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles show up and are closely followed by Marvin Gaye. These two acts demonstrate to everyone what "soul" is, at least in it's romantic sense. It's amazing how great everyone in the show sounded despite all the screaming and the fact that it was live. This was well before the time when artists "sweetened" their vocals with backing tracks or fixed stuff up in post. These were talented singers and they were professionals who all had a different way of entertaining. There were back up singers and band choreography and it looked like they wanted to be there. Marvin had on what looked like a set of short, white tails and he looked snazzy. Most of the show is availible in clips on line and you can easily find them and see what I am talking about. The thing that was most distinct to me last night was how the audience in the theater was responding to the movie. Several performances received applause as if the acts were right in front of us. There wasn't any screaming but there were a lot of murmurs of approval.

John Landis and the director of the T.A.M.I. show itself, Steve Binder, in their talk at the end of the film, both pointed out that at the time, the biggest star of the show was Lesley Gore. Her half dozen songs were a knockout and her voice was clear and strong. Compared to some of the young women who are passing themselves off today as singers, she stands out like a loud, on key note. Her set was the close of the first nights concert and all the acts came out on stage to perform and dance during her last song. It turns out that Binder wanted people to know that he was not simply inserting performances into the show, but that it was a live performance and by having everyone on stage at the same time, the movie audience would know that.

"Jan and Dean" and "the Beach Boys" open the second half of the show with several surfing hits that fit the times. The harmonies for the "beach Boys" were wonderful but the show matked one of the last times that Brian Wilson sang on stage with the band, Wilson subsequently retreated to the studio to do his most creative work. All of the old people like me in the audience knew the stripped shirt look of the band that is featured here and is currently being parodied in cartoon form by hot dogs in Weinerschinzel TV ads. Billie Kramer is up next and he sings a song "Little Children" that has lyrics which today, would be interpreted in a very different way. It is unfortunate that the contemporary meaning will be obscured by the audience's more modern connotative meaning. Mr. Binder said in the talk at the end of the evening, that when he did a DVD commentary for the film, he was asked about whether there were any performances that he was disappointed in. He recorded and it was published on the disc, that he thought Kramer was a little nervous and in danger of being off key at times. He then told us that he got a call from Billy Kramer, who he did not know and that he immediately apologized for his remarks. Later Kramer and his wife spent a day with the Binders and all seems to be forgiven.

Next up come "The Supremes", not to shabby eh? All of the bands seemed to be on that scale, with the exception of "The Barbarians" a newly formed band that had one song in the show. I'd never heard of them before but the drummer seemed to be quite the character with a lot of personality. Apparently he was also missing a hand and had a prosthetic to use while drumming.

Having recently seen "Get on Up", I was familiar with some of the back story on James Brown's performance. Having seen clips on TV is not the same as watching James on the big screen. The audience in our theater was electrified by this fifty year old performance. Everyone laughed at the theatrics and shouted for joy when the Godfather of Soul got up on the good foot and danced. His passionate singing style and showmanship won everybody over and the crowd reaction was loud. No wonder the Stones claimed that the worst move they ever made was following Brown on this show. Mick and the boys were great but while people are singing "Moves Like Jagger", they should see the contrast between the two stars here. Mick was fine but in comparison he looked like he was just streching and did not have the energy to keep the audience going. All the girls in 1964 were still loving it and the band sounded good, so they had nothing to be ashamed of.
My Girls liked the show too.

Steve Binder mentioned in the conversation after the film that James Brown would not rehearse the act. He told Binder to simply follow the action and that he would know what to do with the camera then. Fortunately, Binder had the cameramen linger at a couple of spots or they'd have missed some of The Godfather's moves. John Landis is an avuncular host and tried to keep the discussion lively, but it did seem at times as if he was rushing to get to a point that was the next thing to talk about. Sometimes he stepped on the punchline of a story or mis-remebered an event and Binder would correct him. Binder was very generous with his time and had a bucket load of stories to tell. Since he also directed the "Elvis 68 Comeback Special", we were treated to some insider tales there as well. I remembered he had been a guest on the Mark and Brian Radio program several years ago, talking about the Elvis special. We got some dirt on Colonel Parker and diven that this is Elvis Week coming up, it was a little sad. He also discussed a well known incident concerning Petula Clark and Harry Belefonte in her TV Special. Again, there was a lot of backstage juice being spilled on our behalf.

I would strongly urge anyone who is a fan of Rock music to seek out the T.A.M.I. Show and spend a couple of hours with the geniuses of a half century ago. Sometimes the moments will seem quaint and old fashioned but at other times, the singers will kick you in the gut and demand your attention. Concert films that have been shot since this came out have used similar techniques to track the performers. Double exposure and diffused lenses (accomplished with the use of some Vasaline), and a constantly moving backstage performance are all standards of big pop shows these days, and this is where it all seems to have started.They introduced some of the dancers who came out for the show last night and one of the back up singers from the Blossoms. It was a pretty great experience and I consider myself lucky to have been there.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Quick and the Dead Collage: The CK Movie Challenge

A first attempt at using "Paint" to fulfill the task. I'm OK with it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

For the second time this summer, the focus of a movie is on food and the Chefs that make it so appealing and interesting. Much like the film "Chef", earlier this summer, "The Hundred-Foot Journey focuses on the potential of a chef if only his ambitions can be met halfway. In this case, a family that has taken refuge from violence at home is the source of transition. The limitations imposed on the young cook are sometimes self imposed and sometimes a result of the situation the family finds itself in. There are also multiple romantic stories being told and some cross cultural tension that have to be overcome before the stories can resolve themselves.

Manish Dayal plays Hassan, the second son of an Indian family with a long tradition of cooking. From the time he was a young boy, he learned at his Mother's table the secrets of good food. Everyone knew from an early age that he had a special gift for food. As a young man, he and the rest of his family, including older and younger siblings, are lead by their father to Europe to start a new life and a new restaurant. The young star of the film is required to be confident in some scenes and uncertain in others. The romantic relationship parallels the gastronomical relationship. Marguerite, the sous chef in training who comes to the families rescue when they initially land in the small French town they make their home, becomes a foil for his pursuit of culinary greatness. The best romantic scene in the movie involves Hassan attempting to woo her with his preparation of the five sauces that are the building blocks of French cuisine. As she samples each, the expression on her face and the anticipation in his eyes strongly suggests an exchange of kisses that each leads to a more passionate engagement with the partner. Whenever someone suggests that food and eating is a metaphor for sexual longing in a story, this will be a moment that will pop into my head.

While the young couple are the center of the story, the engine driving this vehicle is Helen Mirren. As Madam Mallory, Mirren begins the relationship looking down her nose at the immigrants and the foods they bring with them. As the owner of a highly rated restaurant merely a hundred feet across the street (hence the title) she is standoffish, antagonistic and outright devious in her quest to bring the "Masion Mumbai" to an end.For a character that has a minimal amount of dialogue in the picture, she has the biggest impact on the story. Mirren can convey so much with her face through an arched eyebrow to a blank stare or pursed lips, she often needs no words.It is her obstinance that must be overcome, well his Father too presents an obstacle. Each of the older characters have reasons for wanting to hold Hassan back at first and ultimately each wants the young prodigy to soar as well. Indian Actor Om Puri has his biggest English language film role in this picture, and it is his success at matching Dame Helen that allows the story to crackle as much as it does.

Nothing is going to happen in the story that you could not predict from seeing the trailer or hearing the set up. This is not a film based on surprise but rather one designed to meet our expectations in the most pleasurable ways possible. Lasse Hallstrom has been a director I've enjoyed since "My Life as a Dog" way back in 1985. I've not seen all of his films but I do admire the ones that I have seen. His light touch with "Chocolat" was just right and the tone and look that he put together for "The Cider House Rules" was one of the few successful adaptions of a John Irving story. This middle brow film is made more effective and more beautiful by the choices he brings to it. Maybe the fantasy of the French countryside is a little extreme but who would not want to fall in love with a beautiful part of the world? People have struggled in movies for years to make computer programming look interesting on screen, but it appears that cooking on screen comes so naturally that it is hard to screw it up. Hallstrom never lingers over the food shots for longer than it takes to tell the story or allow us to imagine what the characters are feeling. The back and forth editing of the food preparation process of the two restaurants does create some nice tension and energy over the issue of food. The actors also do not overdo the confrontation scenes or the romantic moments, they are kept in tasteful check and the audience's understanding of the situation is allowed to fill in the blank spaces.

The vast majority of audiences who see this picture will be like me, they will appreciate food but not to the degree that the characters in this film do. The relationship of taste, smells and tactile experiences will be conveyed but we are all going to need to use our imagination. Food criticism, like literary or film criticism, exists on different levels. Some of us are hackers, like me, who can see excellence but not always write in it's language. Others are experts who not only savior, analyze and enlighten but also raise our expectations. The story might be something even a journeyman can see and explain, but the talent to award a Michelin star for food is well beyond my ability to distinguish, but it is now something I can more clearly understand.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

AMC Classic Series: The Big Lebowski

For every "Blood Simple", "Fargo", or "No Country for Old Men" that the Coen Brothers have produced, there is a lighter, funnier or more preposterous film on the other end of the spectrum. While "Fargo" has humor, I think you would be hard pressed to call it a comedy. "The Big Lebowski" does have a kidnapping plot also, but no one would mistake this for a drama. Somewhere between the slightly overlooked release of the film in 1998 and it's 15th anniversary last year it became a cult classic. It is beloved by aficionados of the Coen Brothers and former fans of Cheech and Chong everywhere. The hero is a burnout, lazy, not particularly clear stoner, which makes him perfect for the Gen X audience that was coming of age at the time.   

This is in a close race with "Raising Arizona" and "Burn After Reading" as the most comedic pictures they have made. I personally have laughed at more things in Lebowski, but the laughs have been harder, and more guttural in those other two movies. This does have a significant advantage over the other two if you are going to do a ranking; the two co-stars. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman give epic performances in this film and they will almost certainly remain the iconic images that people will remember of these two stars careers. All you have to do is search Facebook for examples of memes that feature the two of them and your dance card will be full.

This is a shaggy dog story that chases it's tail but never seems to matter what really happens. As is often said of film detective stories and comedies, it is the journey that matters rather than the destination. This journey covers a lot of territory in Southern California without really showing any of the topography. We get a sense of Malibu and Pasadena more from the characters that we meet who inhabit those places than from seeing the view. The mansion of The Big Lebowski reflects what would pass as old money here in So. Cal. and Jackie Trehorn's glass walled mansion looks like the kind of nouveau riche palace that a pornographer like Larry Flynnt would think is classy in the beach community. There are old school bowling alleys and suburban tract houses that serve as centers for the characters to interact in. So unlike other films that feature the Southland, "The Big Lebowski" uses sets and character to parody life in the City of Angels. As the Stanger who narrates the movie puts it, " But I'll tell you what - after seeing Los Angeles, and this here story I'm about to unfold, well, I guess I seen somethin' every bit as stupefyin' as you'd see in any of them other places. And in English, too. So I can die with a smile on my face, without feelin' like the good Lord gypped me." You'll feel that way too, even though the movie is not a travelogue.

Strange characters come out of the woodwork in this movie. Some of those characters never speak, some of them speak in broken English and some of them just have to piss on the carpet. Phillip Seymour Hoffman vamps it up in a role that preceded his stardom but marked a rich period of character work that he did in the late 90s. David Huddleston will now have this as the headline for his obituary instead of "Santa Claus". Julienne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Ben Gazzara and many others could proudly point to their participation in this movie and be invited to conventions for ever. Finally, the man with the most amazing mustache in Hollywood, Sam Elliot, gets to use his sonorous voice in a whimsical way and ride off into the sunset as a mystery figure who shared this amazing tale.  The work of these character actors and a half dozen others marks one of the richest casts in a modern film that I can think of. All of their collective work would be wasted if we did not get the greatest performance of John Goodman's career and the laconic grace that is Jeff Bridges.

IMDB lists 166 separate quotes from the movie. In a film that is only 117 minutes long, that means the movie had an average of almost 1.5 quotable lines a minute.  From a statistical point of view, if you added in the number of Dudes" and "mans" said in the course of the film and then divided by the total uses of some variation of the "F" word, you will find that there is dialogue poetry as a result. It is one of the joys of movies that music which pre-existed the movie can be re-purposed to fit a story that seems made for that music. This film is an example of that minor miracle as well. My friend Michael has a summer series that he is posting "Purely Because of a Movie" where he spotlights songs on his ipod that are there because of a film he saw. I will be happy to mention a few from this movie that would make my list; Kenny Rogers and the First Edition"Just Dropped In" in the Pop song category, "Requiem in D Minor" by Mozart in the classical category and "Hotel California" by the Gypsy Kings in the selections not in English. There are a dozen other worthy entries as well, but "Tumblin Tumbleweeds" was in my catalog of music long before this film came along. 

So this is a first class comedy, by the remarkable talents of the Coen Brothers, featuring a great cast and two excellent lead performances. There are plenty of music tidbits to keep you intrigued and the movie is almost entirely quotable. Of course as Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski would put it...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Get On Up

If you don't hear the music playing in the trailer above and feel obligated to see the movie because your feet are dancing and your bootie is moving, than you should stay away. This movie has a lot of things going for it, and it could be artistically sound on a dozen different levels, but the main reason to want to see it is the sound of Mr. James Brown. If that sound does not reach you, stay home or go see some superhero movie that no one else cares about or sit and watch bad comedians try to act. The rest of us, yeah even the squares who have no rhythm and almost no soul, will be at the theater seeing and mostly listening to this entertaining biopic that gets all the music moments right.

This is a tough review for me to write because I loved the movie, but I'm not sure how good it is. There are bits and pieces of the drama that are told extremely well, there are musical sequences that are recreated flawlessly and there is a central performance that will stun you. All that said, it does have some of the drawbacks that all biopics have. It feels like it is trying to hit all the key moments of the subjects life, and it rarely has time to think about those moments. There are dramatic scenes in the film that show us the problems of our subject but then are ignored for the rest of the story. Side characters can be interesting, but they are not allowed to distract us too long from the star and that means that everything has to be carried bu that central performance.

Chadwick Boseman has the shoulders to carry this story on. Last year in "42", he played Jackie Robinson with dignity and subtlety. There is nothing subtle about Mr. James Brown, and Boseman plays him perfectly. Brown was an opinionated workaholic, a self aggrandizing braggart, and a showman with vision. Boseman gets Brown's mannerisms down exactly, his dance steps and charisma on stage are re-enacted with verve and precision. As the story went on, the more I felt like I was watching James Brown and the less it seemed that an actor was simply channeling him. Those of you who are interested in early Movie Award predictions, can pencil in Chadwick Boseman, as an early contender in the acting categories. The audacity of trying to imitate James Brown is only exceeded by the brilliance of the actor who managed to accomplish it. This performance is not simply costuming and makeup, this is a full bodied physical performance that really should be seen on the big screen to get the best effect.

Most biographical films try to tell their stories in as creative a manner as possible. In "DeLovely" from a few years ago, we are watching the Cole Porter story as told from heaven by the deceased. "Walk the Line" is bookended by a concert appearance at a prison. Most modern films try to avoid the Hollywood approach of the golden age, a straight narrative told chronologically. "Get On Up", is structured as a random series of flashbacks and flash forwards. It helps to freshen the musical highlights and lessen the drudgery of a well worn story path, but it robs the story of much emotional investment. Brown's friend and apparent savior from early prison, is Bobby Byrd, who walks out with the rest of the "Famous Flames" when James Brown is picked out as the star by the music industry, but in a very fast followup is playing the part of his foil on-stage a couple years later. We have no idea how Brown managed to overcome the alienation he created or if Byrd was just so desperate he overlooked the slight. Admittedly there are random insights on why the other characters act as they do and how James Brown interacted with them at those critical times but there are big blank spaces as a result. A similar story is played out with the Mother who abandoned him, denied him and then embraced him only to be rejected by him. After the incident where she shows up backstage at the Apollo, we never hear or see another word about their relationship. The effect is like looking though someone's photo album but leafing through the pages randomly. It may be interesting but it does not create the kind of narrative that most of us would like.

In the end, not much of that mattered to me because I was seeing a fantastic performance while listening to some great music. The incidents are punctuated with humor and drama in plenty of spots, but those never manage to pull us closer to the subject. We have only the vaguest sense of what his family life might have been like, with nine acknowledged children and at least three ex-wives (and maybe more) showing up after his death. He was opinionated and inconsistent on those opinions, we can see that in the film, what we don't always know is what it all meant. His cultural awareness and importance to black pride is shown, but his openness to other musicians and political figures outside of the expected cultural norm is not explored.  The film gives us an incomplete story but it will leave you with a clear understanding of the person that James Brown was. Oh yeah, you will also get the closest thing to a James Brown concert possible this side of old video/film clips from the 60s. That's reason enough to get on up and see this.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Since the teaser trailer above came out, this has been the film I most anticipated this year. Without knowing a single thing about the characters, plot, or Marvel Universe that it is based in, I was sold. The teaser conveys a humorous attitude, outrageous characters and spectacular action on a huge scale. I am pleased to report that it delivers on every aspect of that promise. This was the most completely satisfying experience I've had in a movie this year. Any complaints that I have are minor quibbles about the complexity of the story and motivations of some of the characters but none of that matters because I was smiling throughout the film and enjoying every minute of what I was seeing.

Ronan, a xenophobic Kree, set on perpetuating a genocidal war against Xander, is also a vassal of Thanos who desires the Infinity Stone embedded in the orb that Peter Quill, known to himself as Star Lord, has obtained supposedly for the Ravanger commander Yondu. That sentence contains the essentials for the plot motivations of the antagonists of the story. Does it sound convoluted enough and is it filled with enough Alien names to tickle your tongue and boggle your mind at the same time? We are just getting started. Ronan is assisted by the adopted daughters of Thanos, Gamora and Nebula.Quill is pursued by another of Ronans enforcers, Korath  and two bounty hunters seeking the reward put out by Yondu for Quill betraying him. This all happens in the first thirty minutes of the movie so it can be a little overwhelming. The names keep coming as well, there is the planet of the Xanders, their capital city, and their leader. All of which trip off the tongue with equal ease. For the most part, the heroes names are simpler; Drax, Rocket, Groot, Quill and eventually Gamora also. With all that going on you would think you need a score card to keep track of what is happening. The storytelling however is constructed in a fashion that is far more straightforward than the list of characters. The on screen imagery usually tells us quite obviously who to root for and who to fear. So even though it sounds like a Russian novel with an endless list of exotic names, you will be able to follow most of the plot twists very clearly.

Fortunately for us, the plot is the least important part of the film making. This is a movie about character and the five central heroes are all great characters. Peter Quill (referred to as Jason in the teaser trailer?), is the perfect anti-hero for a story like this. We know enough of his backstory to feel some kinship with him and we can pick out his persona within twenty seconds of encountering the adult version of him that we first meet on the abandoned planet.  Basically Quill/Starlord is a cross between Han Solo and Bugs Bunny. He is a thief, scoundrel and smart ass rolled into one. He also has an inflated opinion of himself that is sometimes matched by his ambitions. Chris Pratt is cast in this role for the voice and attitude he can convey. The writer/director also provides him with small pieces of business that suit the tone of the character and the actors ability. In his first scene, he is dancing to his own soundtrack and disrespects the local wildlife in the most amusing ways possible. The voice is not quite the Milquetoast that Emmet from "The Lego Movie " is,  but he never sounds like a badass even though he fights like one. As the story unfold we will learn a bit more about this Terran that most of the rest of the characters underestimate.

Zoe Saldana is officially the biggest female star in the Science Fiction Universe. I have no idea how she is going to keep up with the demands that will be made on her in the next ten years. She has three "Avatar" sequels to film, another "Star Trek" and now this franchise. The fact that she changes skin color for every one of these roles is a side note but it may also explain one way that she can seem to be so distinct in each movie. As Gamora, the assassin and disloyal adopted daughter of Thanos, she is a lot more physical than in either of the other parts. Her motion capture work in Avatar was amazing in the sense of body language but the fighting and action scenes will not compare to what she is asked to do here.

There are three other characters that make up the Guardian team. Drax is a behemoth bent on killing Ronan and then Thanos for the murder of his family. Dave Bautista is a wrestler turned actor. He has the physical dimensions you want for a powerhouse ally in a galactic prison. There is something very charismatic in the way he carries himself and the smile that he gives up infrequently. As a bad guy in "The Man with the Iron Fists" he was stoic and monosyllabic. He repeats those characteristics in this role but adds a touch of warmth and shows some potential as more than just a comic book big guy. The other two characters are computer generated and despite that, they have some of the most human behavior and emotions in the film. Rocket is a genetically and mechanically altered organism that basically is a talking Raccoon.  He is a sly creature with a sick sense of humor and a clever ability to plan and engineer on the fly. Bradley Cooper helps bring some intensity and humor to the character through his voice. Groot speaks only four different words in the whole movie. His lines consist of the same sentence but it is delivered with enough variation that we can tell there is more meaning there. Vin Diesel does the voice work.

There are a dozen other characters that are distinctive enough that after seeing the film you will remember them, despite the name problems. The story is populated with a variety of interesting alien beings. The broker who is supposed to be in charge of the sale of the orb is a combination of a Star Trek character from "The Search for Spock" and Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter series. Quill's surrogate father, the Ravager Yondu is Michael Rooker, an actor who has always been a welcome presence in films. In the opening segment Greg Henry gives a memorable few moments as Peter's distraught maternal Grandfather. Up and down the line there are performers doing a good job in a film where most of them are acting against green screens and other characters so heavily made up that it looks like Halloween.

The visualization of the technology and ships and worlds that the characters interact in and with is marvelous. No one stops down to do exposition on most of these things, we just see them work. The story moves fast enough that we get as much background as we need but not more than is necessary. The music is fine but what is going to stand out is the song score that is laden with seventies and sixties pop rock. The way the music is integrated into the story is amusing and it creates some heart for the main character. The choices are sometimes whimsical but that whimsy provokes a laugh at just the right time and reminds us of the spirit that the movie is trying to sustain. The world in this universe is another bunch of planets and that may make the mayhem of destruction more tolerable since it is clearly fantasyland we are playing in here.

This is a comic book movie that I had no knowledge of before the film came out. It feels so much more like the fun type of fantasy story told in the Star Wars films than the angst heavy comic stories we have had in the last few years. This feels like a summer movie. It is on a scale as big as "The Avengers" but it does not have all the baggage that each of those characters bring to their collaboration. I know that all of the Marvel Universe is being tied together here and there, but I hope that I will never see Tony Stark and Peter Quill trading barbs with one another. The sensibilities of those franchises is so different that it is a joy to visit a completely unique spot in the comic universe. I look forward to future adventures with the "Guardians of the Galaxy", let's hope that the light tone and ingenious creativity can sustain these stories without having to venture into other territories.