Friday, February 27, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

A lot of Star Trek fans who are even more passionate than I am will be sharing their thoughts all over the internet in the next few days. I can't begin to match their stories of how the character of Spock, changed their lives. Some were able to live more happily by accepting their own differences, others will have been inspired to pursue careers in science and in writing. There will be a thousand good stories of the actor Leonard Nimoy, touching peoples hearts and minds at conventions, in interviews and with personal contact. I don't have any of those stories. What I have is a heart that was touched by one of the least emotional characters in fiction. How can this be? It is simple, the actor who played the alien was a real person and the real person is what made the character someone we could care for. We have an emotional connection to Mr. Spock because of the friendship he had with the other main characters on Star Trek, Captain Kirk and Dr.McCoy .

Ethos, Pathos and Logos battled it out each week in an effort to solve the problems faced by the crew of the Enterprise. We usually discovered that it was not one path that leads to a solution but many combinations of these essential traits. That two humans with outsized personalities could find comradery  with an emotionless, cold, half alien seems hard to believe, until you see the show. Then we know that friendship can be many things, including frustrating. Kirk and Bones would tease Spock but he never seemed to take it any way except in the way it was intended, as the gesture of a friend. Leonard Nimoy imbued the character with the capacity to be a friend, even if the nature of the character is to reject such an emotional relationship. Nimoy was accomplished outside of the Trek universe and he had much to be proud of in all his other work, but everyone knew that when this sad day came, this was the image of the actor that everyone would recall.

All of us will feel as if we were in this scene, unable to touch our friend as he left us, bereft of the friendship that has been a part of our lives for fifty years, and sad that as with all of us, the final frontier awaits.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Academy Awards

Having now seen all of the pictures nominated for Best Picture, and most of the performances in the Acting Categories, I'm willing to make a few calls for this evenings show. We will basically be going with the six big plus the live action and animated shorts since I have seen all of those.

Best Live Action Short

I'd be happy to see "Boogaloo and Graham" win. It was a delight to watch but it is ultimately a bit slight. My pick for winning is "Parvaneh", a well made, politically correct parable about cross cultural connections.

Best Animated Short

Of the five nominees, "Feast" has to be the most widely seen and it is also the one that is most completely put together. Basically it tells a complete story without dialogue but with a huge amount of heart and humor.

Best Supporting Actress

In the category that they found another slot to fit Meryl Streep, I think anyone would be surprised if someone other than Partricia Arquette were to end up with the Award. She is the glue that holds "Boyhood" together. She has been winning in all the other contests at the end of the year, so she is a pretty sure thing.

Best Supporting Actor

If a name other than J.K. Simmons is called tonight, all bets are off. He is as close to a sure thing as there is and he deserves the award. Whiplash was my favorite film of the last year and it needs to get some props from the Academy. It is unlikely to win the big Award tonight so this will be the one place where it can make a splash.

Best Actress

This is the one field where I have not seen all the performances. All indications seem to be that the barely released Alzheimers drama, "Still Alice" will;bring Julianne Moore her long overdue award. I thought Rosemund Pike was outstanding in "Gone Girl" but I will go with the conventional wisdom.

Best Actor

Since people like the idea of a horserace, this is the category where I can see a close competition. Eddie Redmayne as Steven Hawking did a good job with the physicality of his role but the part is so conventionally drawn that the character is just not as interesting as he should be. Michael Keaton has the opposite issue, his character is so interesting that the performance may be hidden by the fireworks. I'm going with Keaton, I think the movie is catnip to film proessionals, it is about an actor struggling with his place in the world and it is shot in a style that celebrates creativity.

Best Director

Alejandro González Iñárritu for "Birdman". Other than Keaton, his is the hand that is most visible on the film. Richard Linklater managed a similar influence with "Boyhood", if that film ends up as the Best Picture winner, he could be pulled into the winner's envelope. Conventional wisom is to go with the DGA winner and that would be Alejandro González Iñárritu. The Academy Awards gets more and more conventionally unsurprising as it's membership expands.

Best Picture

This is the place where there is the most uncertainty about the award. A late surge by "American Sniper" may have been undermined by controversy of a political sort. "Birdman" was a critical favorite and might still win, but it is the most off center film nominated, and the broader Academy is likely to be satisfied with splitting the awards and giving this unusual film it's glory in other categories.  My guess is that this is a "Driving Miss Daisy" and then "Crash"-ing year. The major award going to a film that is not a landslide but a default winner because it is ultimately emotionally satisfying. While I'd love to see "Whiplash" give every prognosticator a heart attack, I think the winner will be "Boyhood".

5 for 8, I can live with that but I've done better before.

AMC Best Picture Showcase 2015 Day Two

So day two of the annual Best Picture Showcase featured four films that I had not yet seen. This was an unusual year for me, last year at the Best Picture Showcase, "Her" was the only film I needed to catch up on, so it was the only one from either day that I needed to do a fairly complete post on. This year, the burden is more complicated. All four of today's movies were new to me, but I don't have the energy to do a full review of each at this time of night and I want to be finished before the Awards tomorrow. So you are going to get a thumbnail review of each of the four, and during the Awards tomorrow, I may post some commentary video to go along with my opinions and guesses.

This is the film that I was least looking forward to. The subject sounded a little mundane and the film looked like it was entirely predicated on a gimmick. I had heard a number of positive comments and the reviews have mostly been glowing, but I could not shake off my dread. After being subjected to "The Wolf of Wall Street", "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Tree of Life" in the last few years, I assumed there would be a pretentious turkey in the bunch and this looked like it would fit the bill. I am happy to say I am completely surprised and that this is indeed an outstanding piece of work, deserving of some acclaim and a warm spot in almost anyone's heart.

While it is episodic and sometimes without much of a theme or structure, it is also a lot more entertaining than I expected. There is a stronger narrative than I was lead to believe, although it gives Patricia Arquette the thankless task of playing a woman who can only choose losers as husbands.  I should have known that the slice of life approach could be enthralling coming from director Richard Linklater. He did a fantastic job on "Dazed and Confused" twenty one years ago and this proves that he has the right touch for character pieces.

Ellar Coltrane grows up in front of us but there is more to the story than that. His character has to give up friends, confront bullies, live with neurotic parents and cope with a broken heart. I read some criticism of him in a few spots but I thought he was very good at the younger age and got better as the years passed. If you are a parent, be prepared to see some of the events in the growth of your own child pass by in the blink of an eye. It was not always smooth, and the "movies" have conditioned us to expect the worst at times, but this personal diary of a young boys life is a nice way to experience those moments again (minus the abusive drunks).

Eddie Redmayne may very well win the Oscar tomorrow for his portrayal of physicist Steven Hawking. He has a love story and a tragic human malady to support him, and the well known specter of Hawking himself hanging over the proceedings. The part is an actor's dream because it requires a variety of emotional touchstones and a physical transformation that will impress even the most casual of viewers. It is as a result, a technically excellent performance but an unsatisfactory accomplishment. The fault is the completely straightforward narrative of the picture, which takes us from point A to point B and then to point C in exactly the manner that everyone expects.  There are no surprises here, and the thing that even the cosmologist would say is the least important reason for his being well known, the crippling disease that trapped him in a failing body. The brilliant theories are in the movie but they are not realized in a creative way and they are still almost as abstract as the lesson in quantum physics we got in "Interstellar".

The Cambridge environment and the 1960s setting are an elegant tapestry for the love story between the two leads to play out against. The clothes, music and manners of the times feel genuine with these characters. Felicity Jones is a match for Redmayne's performance, without all of the physicality that goes with it. The sad dance of decaying romance turning into respectful friendship also undermines the last half of the story. Yes it is honest and sensitively played, but it is also a downer which finishes the movies  early strengths with hard fact.

This was the most conventional of all the films nominated this year. Even Selma, a story that has history all over it, managed to inject a little tension and anticipation to the events it showed. This film just feels like the cliff notes version of the story, and a very obvious biopic that could have worked on any number of media formats. It is a very good film, but not an excellent one.

From a story telling point of view, this film feels like a very traditional mainstream Academy friendly movie. An oddball genius, has to overcome his own failings as a human being in order to work effectively on a critical job. It is an important part of history, especially World War Two, but also technology since it features what is basically an early computer. It also benefits from having a theme about the oppression of women and homosexuals, two pieces of bait the Academy is unlikely to ignore. Coming as it did right after "The Theory of Everything" it made me feel as though I'd seen almost every British actor of the current generation in a four hour span.

Bouncing around three time periods in the life of Alan Turing, we get enough background to see where he is coming from and why he ends up as he did. The central part of the story is the pressure filled race to crack the "Enigma" code and save lives and win the war. Benedict Cumberbatch has secured his place as a modern British movie icon after a short ten year period where he had small roles in a dozen big films and a breakout role on BBC television. His face is a passive mask on which we can easily project coldness, malevolence and a robotic personality. That he manages to make the later scenes into something more human explains his presence among the nominees for Best Actor this year. Kiera Knightly shines in a clearly supporting role as a woman who is also incredibly bright and overlooked for completely different reasons.

"The Imitation Game" is a well told war story, with a huge chunk of intrigue to boot. That it makes math puzzles interesting and important is an accomplishment of some sort. Mark Strong will soon be the new Michael Caine, he will be appearing in every other movie that comes out of Great Britain before long.  I also enjoyed recognizing Rory Kinnear as the police inspector. He is now a regular in the 007 films playing Bill Tanner the Chief of Staff, and he is technically Veruca Salt's brother.

At Eighty Four years old, Clint Eastwood puts the rest of us average mortals to shame. He had two films that he directed out this year, the musical "Jersey Boys" and this combination war film and biopic of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. As I watched this film today, I was impressed with the detail of the battles and the settings used in filming. There is a terrific performance from the lead actor (and producer of the film) and Clint manages to get a musical credit for himself as well. This is the most financially successful of all of the films nominated and the biggest hit of Eastwood's  career, either in front of or behind the camera. Oh yeah, did I mention that he is 84. Man I feel like a slug by comparison.

Billed as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, Chris Kyle's story is one that is motivated by a deep love of country and a creed that appears to have been a part of his life since childhood. He is a Shepard protecting the flock from the wolves. I can hardly believe that this story has come in for criticism from some political points of view. There may be legitimate criticisms of the Iraq war, but the troops shown here are heroes, doing their job in incredibly hard circumstances. They have a tough time balancing the warrior spirit with the need to win hearts and minds of the locals. The film never depicts the enemy as anything other than what they are, and it walks the fine line of showing evil and innocence in the same places. That is the story that Kyle tells and the movie shows.

Bradley Cooper is nominated for the third year in a row, suggesting that we can put to rest any doubts about his abilities. He shows that Kyle was a simple man who had to life a complicated life in order to do his duty. While we can celebrate his acts, they are never lingered over or shown in a gratuitous fashion. The only time any sniper shot is show boated is in a final tense shootout when an incredibly difficult shot is depicted with a slow motion camera zoom along the trajectory of a CGI bullet. This moment from a CSI episode was needed because of the distance being shown at which the shot was taken, not to make the killing of an enemy more spectacular.  The much criticized other special effect in the film ( a mechanical baby used for a brief couple of scenes) was not nearly as distracting as some have said.

The brotherhood of the soldiers and the strains on the family at home are not new concepts. They are however honestly shown here and not played for melodrama. Eastwood has the right touch for the domestic scenes and a surprising ability to make the war sequences harrowing and real.  "American Sniper" is a more relevant story than any of the other films nominated this year and the film making skill that went into telling it is second to none. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

This is one of those meta experiences that so often crop up in films these days. It is a film about spies that references James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, yet it engages in the same over the top story telling and effects that it is simultaneously lampooning. Having done the same thing to Fairy Tales with "Stardust" and Comic Books with "Kick Ass", director Matthew Vaughn now turns to a new genre with this hyper violent exercise in adrenaline based movies. Oh, and just so you know, he pulls it off brilliantly.

The opening credits will make you giggle with the use of exploding pieces of an ancient fort, blowing onto the screen to form the credit titles. All of this is scored with Dire Straights "Money for Nothing", yeah that's the way you do it. Colin Firth is is Harry Hart, codename Galahad, an agent of the privately organized intelligence and espionage agency that borrows from every cartoon spy film of the sixties and makes the idea of a gentleman spy come to life. Firth was once imagined as a James Bond replacement, and the fact that his boss "Arthur" is played by Michael Caine, the working class Bond of the Harry Palmer films, makes the whole thing even more delicious.

Newcomer Taron Egerton plays the hard knock, working class son of an earlier protege of Galahad, rough around the edges but ready to be polished. Early parts of the movie and recurring sequences focus on the recruitment and testing process of likely "Kingsman" material. As the job interview begins, a threat to the world by well meaning but crazy billionaire tech guru Valentine, sends the regular agents out in the field to investigate. Samuel Jackson plays a George Soros/Al Gore hybrid with a distinct lisp and an aversion to seeing the violence that he himself wants. As Hart crosses swords with Valentine, they engage in a parody of cliches from most spy movies of this variety. In their interactions they even discuss the Bond films that feature megalomaniac rich guys who play villain to the English spy, and they both play with those roles effectively.

If your liberal sensibilities are easily offended, you may want to stay away from this. Jackson's character is a rich genius with an evil plan to save the world from global warming. He attempts to recruit influential leaders and celebrities from around the world to be part of his new world order. Visualize the Socialist/Green/Celebrity Environmentalists as the dupes that will populate the Earth like Drax's genetic specimens in "Moonraker" or Stromberg's mermen in "The Spy Who Loved Me". This is the biggest drubbing of liberal sacred cows since "Team America". The Kingsman might seem reactionary to some, invoking as they do the names of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They even use a piece of equipment supposedly part of the loathed Strategic Defense Initiative [referred to as the Star Wars satellite system] to fight back against the plans of the villain.

Since Star Wars does get mentioned here, it is fun to note that a nearly unrecognizable Mark Hamill appears as a kidnapped scientist. Mark Strong, who has been in most of Vaughn's previous films, plays "Merlin" the aide de camp to the Kingsman.  There also seems to be a CGI version of an American Leader with prominent ears, who plays along with the scheme. At this point some audience members heads will explode, but hold on because that will not be the end of the fireworks. This movie also parodies the Westboro Baptist church crazies, the aristocrats of Great Britain, and dog lovers everywhere. Some of the humor is broad, such as the meal served by the suspected billionaire to the agent posing as another billionaire. It is either biting satire or great product placement.

The young leads get to take over the action at the end and they are just as effective as Firth was in his moments of glory ( or maybe I should say gory). This movie takes "Kick Ass" violence to new levels with some sick jokes mixed in. Imagine the damage a flying marital artist with razor sharp blades for feet can do, and then expect to see it on the screen. The slow mo, fast action styles explored in other films of this ilk are used here to good effect, but if you are over that approach, there are plenty of other bits of violence to delight you.

In all honesty, this is a movie that was genetically designed to tickle my funny bone and stimulate my adrenal glands. If "Kick Ass" and "James Bond" had a love child, this would be it. The film never takes itself too seriously but sometimes it plays with that idea as well. There is classic rock on the soundtrack, Colin Firth, Samuel Jackson and Michael Caine on the screen, and there is enough violence for ten movies. I was in love with this film when it was being hatched in the minds of the comic book artist who created the concept and the person who is responsible for putting Matthew Vaughn in charge. To quote Harry Hart: "Manners maketh man. Do you know what that means? Then let me teach you a lesson". I consider myself well schooled after seeing this.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Academy Award Nominated Shorts 2015

Theater chains often get a bad rap because they play the same films as every other chain, on multiple screens, and they are for the most part faceless entities lacking a distinctive ambiance. In 1998, a thirty screen complex opened in our neck of the woods and it was a better experience than that. They held onto movies for a longer period of time, they programmed in the occasional independent film, and while it does look a little too corporate planned designed, there was a cool space station motif to the decor. A few years ago, after opening another venue even closer to us, the thirty screen theater had such a drop off in business that they closed thirteen of the theaters, basically the south wing of the facility. AMC has continued to try and keep the theater more than just a shopping mall extension, by showing classic films, special event programming and continuing to host the Best Picture Showcase. This year our local venue added the Academy Award nominated shorts to its weekend screenings. We did not get the documentaries but we did have the Animated and Live Action shorts to watch.

The animated shorts were a complete delight and they added three or four honorable mentions to help fill out the program.

A Single Life

This was the shortest of the shorts, a piece of computer animation, Pixar style, with a funny premise and a couple of sly winks at the regular movie industry.


An Actual Disney film, I think we saw it playing last year with "Big Hero 6", but it might have been another film it was with. Beautiful story telling and a heart warming payoff, just what you expect from the crew at the most reliable animation studio in the world, and of course it has a dog.

Me and My Moulton

The animation style reminds me of the films I used to see in the seventies and early eighties at the annual Tournee of Animation that we went to at the Rialto Theater every year. The story centers on three Finnish sisters and their desire to have a bicycle. It's another short coming of age story that works well despite some of the odd Finnish touches.

The Bigger Picture

This tackles a tough subject, the care of an elderly parent and the conflicts between siblings that it engenders. It has the most strikingly different visual style and will affect those who have gone through this experience like I have.

The Dam Keeper

This is a parable about bullying, misunderstanding and friendship. It is done in the softest style using water colors and drawings that often look like impressionistic art. It is sixteen minutes long, the lengthiest of the five nominated films.

Prediction: I have no idea how the animation branches of the Academy see things, but I suspect that "Feast" will be the winner because it is the most complete concept and it is extremely polished.

The Live Action Shorts are all longer and they are very different from one another. I am not well versed in this field, although I have encountered Live Action Shorts on occasion. This is an outsiders perspective so I hope you will make allowances.


This was the longest film at almost forty minutes. It is basically an odd conversation between two strangers in a car in Israel. How they come to be in the car and who they are is part of the charm. I'm not sure what it all means but it was enjoyable.

Boogaloo and Graham

Two boys in Belfast are given chickens as pets by their feckless father. Mom is not as enamored as they are and complication ensue. This was a relatively brief film at fourteen minutes, it was also my favorite of the five.


Of all the shorts today, this was the one that was most esoteric. A Chinese Photography crew takes pictures of rural, maybe Mongol or Tibetan families in front of a variety of backdrops. That's it. There are some amusing picture combinations and a couple of humorous interactions, but in the long run it did not feel very meaningful.


An Afghanistan girl struggles to earn money for her family back home while working illegally in various jobs in Switzerland. She speaks German but has some basic cultural issues that make being clear a bit odd. She needs the help of a resident with the right I.D. to get Western Union to wire the money home. The solution to her situation is a great story in overcoming cultural barriers and establishing friendship.

The Phone Call

A crisis intervention phone operator attempts to provide solace to a painfully lonely man on the brink of ending his life. Sally Hawkins, a nominee for Best Supporting Actress from "Blue Jasmine" gives an affecting performance as a woman who doesn't judge but empathizes with her client. Jim Broadbent is the disembodied voice on the phone.

Prediction: Although I liked Boogaloo and Graham the best, my guess is that the message of "Parvaneh" will trump with an Oscar win. We'll see next Sunday.

AMC Best Picture Showcase 2015 Day One

I still can't talk everyone into doing the one day version of this, even though there were only eight films nominated this year. This is an extremely rare year for me, in that I have seen only two of the nominated films this year. I combination of circumstances kept me away from the movies when they were first released and then as it got closer it just seemed to be a better idea to wait and see them all at the annual showcase at our AMC theaters.

Today the first two films that ran were the two that I have previously written about. Both films were in my top five for the year and one of them was my favorite film of last year.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
This marvelous Wes Anderson film is a joy to behold. Filled with eccentric characters, an outlandish plot and a story structure that allows dozens of actors to pop in and out of the film, it is hysterical and very well put together. A combination of miniatures, process shots and fantastic set design takes us through a pre-World War Two , Eastern European country with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustav, the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel and his faithful Lobby Boy.

If you have not seen this film yet, prepare to be shocked. It is one of the most intense experiences you will ever have at a movie and there is virtually no action and with one mild exception, no violence. This is a game of mental torture and artistic chess played by two unlikable characters, both of whom need each other in the worst possible way. Expect J.K. Simmons to walk away with the Best Supporting actor award. Terrence Fletcher is a nightmare of a teacher but a driven artistic taskmaster may be what is needed to push someone to greatness. Just be aware that there is a huge amount of collateral damage along the way. My Favorite film of the last year.

Birdman : (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

This one has been discussed a lot since it came out and it may be one of the favorites to win the big award next week. I was aware that it was a surreal film that uses off camera voices, strange visuals and an unusual set of actors who at times seem to be mining their own experience for the purpose of making this movie.

It is largely a one man show although there is an outstanding supporting cast, including two actors nominated for their roles in the film, but Michael Keaton is the show here. As an actor who make a series of highly successful films in the early 1990s but now is struggling to find artistic and financial success in a Broadway show, Keaton is "Batman", sorry, "Birdman".  The character he plays reflects every insecurity an actor is likely to feel. He has written an adaption of a story by Raymond Carver, and id directing it himself. The voice he hears is his alter ego from the successful film series, both spreading doubt about the current undertaking but also bolstering his confidence at key moments.

As the film starts, I noticed several trademark Keaton mannerisms in the performance. He pauses in mid sentence, he shakes his head and holds up his hands as we have seen in several of his earlier works, but the longer we watch, the less we see of the familiar "movie Star" and the more we see of a troubled performer at war with himself and the world. Despite the shots that Hollywood takes from the script, Keaton shows that he has mastered the art of screen acting. He underplays scenes at times and makes the grand gestures at just the right moments. If he wins the award, it will not be some lifetime achievement honor that is catching up with him. He will have deserved it.

The movie also skews Broadway, rehab cliches, reality TV, critics and modern social media. While less focused on the narcissistic fantasy of love that "Her" projected last year, "Birdman" shows us how shallow comments and accidental video can build up a personality. The fact that a man not schooled in these techniques manages to make them work in his favor is part of the joy of this movie. It is very cleverly shot, suggesting a continuous point of view through out the movie. There is an occasional passage of time but the camera always picks up at the last spot that it left us. This does mean that the photography is sometime a little frenetic, but you probably don't need to take any Dramamine.

This picture is a chance for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, to show off a little. The only other film of his that I have seen is the multistory culture clash movie "Babel " which was not nearly as visually accomplished but was a lot more coherent. "Birdman" is jarring in it's oddness but very interesting and thoughtful. It reminded me of a less irritating version of "Black Swan", without the "Twilight Zone" twist.


The story of the civil rights movement continues to be an important one to this country. It is hard to imagine that the events depicted here happened in my lifetime. It is also hard to believe how much the film makers tried to turn the passionate Martin Luther King Jr. into a different kind of hero. There rational and compassionate minister gets a steroid injection by the cutting together of many of his words into a series of sermons and speeches that shown in this manner, make him more belligerent than the times called for. So much of the story is on point that it seems like a cheat to shoehorn in some of the extra drama.

I have read that former members of L.B.J.'s administration are offended at the way their President was depicted in this movie. Johnson may have prioritized things but he was not an impediment to the Voting Rights act. In fact he had authorized a stringent attempt to create a bill that would be as strong as imaginable. Despite having 68 Democratic Senators he feared that the Southern democrats would block the legislation so soon after the Civil Rights Act had been passed the year before. The movie attempts to show how the violent tactics used by the authorities in the South, spurred Johnson on to support the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen was particularly moved to push the legislation through because of the Selma March and the tactics used by the Alabama authorities to stop it and it is one of his legislative legacies.  the problem was very complex and this film focuses on the infighting of the different supporters of the legislation in the Civil Rights movement and an occasional appearance by intransigent  Governor George Wallace. The performances by Tom Wilkinson as Johnson and Tim Roth as Wallace are good side lights to the story but the main focus of course deserves to be on Dr. King.

David Oyelowo plays King with a great deal of dignity and authenticity. His cadence and voice range seem to fit the part perfectly. He has several opportunities to channel Dr.  King at the pulpit or the podium, and he comes off effectively at both. If there is a weakness to the film it is that it is so dependent on exposition that it seems as if it is a series of endless conversations. Sometimes they take place in the Oval Office, while others are in a bedroom or in jail. Regardless, there is a lot of talking going on and it seems like it is all written as a history lesson rather than a drama. The most compelling parts of the film are the recreations of the racial confrontations with police and state troopers. These are the events that manage to spark some life into the movie.

"Selma" was the longest film we saw today, and unfortunately it felt like it. The movie loses it's pacing every time another meeting takes place and there are a lot of meetings in this story. Still it is a compelling story because of the events that it depicts if not the scenes that dominate the film. The set design and costuming are effective at evoking the time and place for these events. Right up until the unfortunate rap tune that is used over the closing credits, the movie felt authentic. When that tune started, it felt like the film became polemic instead of enlightening, and that was a turn off for me.

Next Week Part Two: The Final Four Best Picture Nominees.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

OK, this is clearly not a film made for me, but I do know some of the people it is made for and they will mostly be happy to have it to go with their copies of the book. You know , the one that started off as fan fiction porn inspired by "Twilight" and then pulled from on-line and published in traditional form so that all the Moms who don't have access to the internet can perv out on it as well. After all the hype about the percentage of time the film spends with the leads naked, I'm afraid I found it a lot less enticing than I expected. I also found it less laughable than most of the reviews and comments from skeptics make it out to be. This is not an endorsement, just a recognition that this film works pretty much the way most "romance" films do, only with an over-hyped sense of kink.

There is not really much point in belaboring the issue, the reason people are going to see this is the BDSM angle the film has on the story. The rest of what you get is standard romance novel plotting about a girl from modest means falling for a rich guy who is really good looking. That's it. They have the usual slow build up to sharing their feelings, the one where we see them meet, do a little social tangle, push back against the feelings, and then give in to them. This is the stuff of a thousand books and movies. It is sprinkled here with the elaborate lifestyle that a billionaire can lead, so the wooing includes helicopter flights, luxury cars and the freedom that comes from being able to buy whatever you want. Sometimes that includes trying to buy the attention (not love) of the girl you are smitten with.

People who are deriding the film as amateurish and the dialogue as laughable , are simply taking a position. The movie is competently made with some very standard scenes of budding romance and some deliberately silly humor. It does not rise to any great levels but it is certainly not the steaming pile that it is accused of being. I thought it felt over long and I was surprised at how long it took to get to the "good stuff". When the sex scenes show up, there is barely a sense of eroticism in the start and by the end of the film, it was sort of dull that we get another round of whipping, this time destined to create a cliff hanger for the next film in the series.

fifty_shades_of_greyI don't want to get into the sexual politics that a story like this invites. I just saw a rant from my daughter on tumblr concerning Anne Rice's defense of the film, and I really don't want to get involved. My kid is smarter than I am and very articulate and also full of opinions that I don't agree with. Instead of spending time discussing a piece of pop ephemera, I'd rather just avoid the subject and let those with passion on the subject have their say. I don't feel passionate about this film one way or the other, that should be enough for anyone to make a judgement about whether they want to see it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Just Sharing some stuff you all might want to see.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Seventh Son

Fifty or sixty years ago, this movie would have featured the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhaussen. It would have been made with elegant sets made on a limited budget and it would feature actors not entirely familiar to American audiences. Times have clearly changed. This movie is packed with CGI creatures and sets, it has a cast headed by well known Academy Award winners and nominees. Marketing and production priorities have clearly evolved. There is one thing though that has not altered in all the time passed between "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Seventh Son", fantasy adventure movies still work based on simple story premises and the right attitude by the film makers. The people behind this movie have exactly the right attitude.

This film is a throwback to weekend afternoon matinees and more innocent adventure films of the past. This is not a reinvention of a well know story like "Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters" from a couple of years ago. That film turned CGI into the main reason for seeing a film. It was loaded with violent destruction and blood delivered in 3D. "Seventh Son" also features the destruction of witches, but not by decapitation or Rube Goldberg weapons. This is old fashioned hero magic against the dark forces of the world. With the exception of relatively mild conflagration of witches, the violence here is on the PG level. You could safely take a couple of bright eight to twelve year olds and not have to worry about nightmares or turning them into gore hounds.

I hope that doesn't sound like a knock on the movie because it is far from it. This is a recommendation for people who are looking for a movie with tradition adventure elements featuring monsters and brave men fighting the odds, but can do without the viscera flying off the screen in their faces. There are five or six witches featured in the story and they all turn into some kind of monster. All of those monsters are of the 50s flavor, they are inventive, dangerous and unlikely to rip people into small pieces just for fun. The sensibility of this picture is light and fun in spite of the dark themes and characters.  Julianne Moore is a witch who turns into a dragon but was caged and banished for many years by a knight with special gifts. That knight must be the seventh son of a seventh son, who becomes what is referred to as a spook, a wandering hero who tames all sorts of dark magic and evil in the world. Jeff Bridges is Master Gregory, the knight who contained her and he is training an apprentice to take over his job. When she finally manages to escape, complications arise and we get a another young hero emerging from the shadow of an older master, the hero with a thousand faces has returned. The Lebowski reunion of Moore and Bridges has none of the knowing self satisfaction of that Coen classic. This movie plays all the characters straight.

When I first saw the teaser for this movie it was almost two years ago. Jeff Bridges had made a similar film that was pretty sad called R.I.P.D., where he is mentor to a dead Ryan Reynolds. I did not hold out much hope for this movie, it looked like just another CGI crapfest that would be as disposable as this morning's diapers. Imagine my surprise when it turns out to be a simple popcorn story with a fun sensibility that could have been written five decades ago. The look of the monsters is fun rather than gross and the story is pretty easy to follow and includes a little romance, a little revenge and a few secrets along the way.

The very first thing that grabbed my attention and made me have hope for the film was the score by Marco Beltrami. The sound is swashbuckling light at the start. It does not try to overwhelm us with brooding power. Instead it builds the characters and sets a tone that suggests something fun rather than something solemn. While there is a lot of CGI, it did not feel like it was constantly used just to make us gasp, rather it brings the world of the story to life but never ignores the characters. The work is also stylized enough to make it seem like a movie rather than absolutely real. That may sound like another criticism but fantasy films need to be a bit unreal at times to help us suspend our disbelief in the right way. There are nearly a billion people living in India, and from the credits, nearly half of them worked on the special effects for this movie.

seventh_son_ver10If I have negatives they are limited. Bridges is channeling the same character voice he used in R.I.P.D and it sounds too garbled at times. Young star Ben Barnes has a haircut straight from 2015, which seems at odds with the dark ages settings and costumes. Other than those minor quibbles, I found this to be a delightful surprise. What could have been a total waste of time turned out to be a fun time at the movies. If your kids are too old for Sponge Bob, this is the one to take them to this month.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Oscar Blogathon--Neglected Supporting Actor Performances of 1975

This  is my entry into the 31 days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. This week focuses on Oscar Snubs. For forty years I have been stewing on this injustice and I am thankful to have an opportunity to vent. Please be sure to check out the other posts on this project at the sites listed above. I have also included links to relevant posts of my own in this entry.

I have always maintained that 1975 was one of the great years in American movie history. Along with 1939 and 1982, this year from the middle of the last golden age of cinema had a plethora of worthy films. I would never denigrate "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", or "Dog Day Afternoon". "Barry Lyndon" is lovely but I despise "Nashville". The picture that deserved to win the big award is featured on the masthead of this blog so it is no secret that I harbor an admiration for Steven Spielberg's "Jaws". It was an oversight to neglect that movie but it was understandable given the fine work done by all in the eventual winner.
What I do find unforgivable however is the negligence of the Academy's Actor's branch to include two performances from that year in the supporting actor category. Not only were the two performances I want to highlight for you ignored, they were far more deserving than any of the roles that did receive nominations. Just to refresh your memory, in case you don't carry that sort of trivia around in your head for just such a discussion, the nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category were, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener in "Day of the Locust", Chris Sarandon as Leon in "Dog Day Afternoon" and Jack Warden as Lester Karpf in "Shampoo". The eventual winner was sentimental favorite, comedian, vaudevillian, and TV personality George Burns, as Al Lewis in "the Sunshine Boys". All of these men did fine work, and no one should be embarrassed to have been included, but the five selected did not include career defining work from two other well known and worthy actors.

Let me start with the performance that is least likely to be remembered by today's movie goers. Brian Keith was maybe best known as a Television actor. He starred in two separate successful series, one in the 1960s, "Family Affair" where he played Uncle Bill, the bachelor guardian to his brother's orphaned children. In the 80's he costarred in Hardcastle and  McCormick, he had two or three other series that did not last more than a season or two as well. He made an appearance in many films since he started in the business but worked most consistently in TV. In 1975 he showed up and off in the John Milius written and directed "The Wind and the Lion".

chi-president-election-movies-20121105-004Keith played President Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most accomplished man we ever had in the job of President of the U.S.. It is also a role that is parodied in films, depicting Roosevelt as a reckless headstrong cowboy, whose bellicose manner was defined as the "Big Stick" policy. What may not be said as frequently is the first part of the policy, "speak Softly". Keith manages to to convey this dual nature of Roosevelt in this adventure film inspired by a real historic incident.

In the story, Sean Connery is a Berber brigand who has taken an American woman hostage for political purposes in Morocco. As he is preparing to run for the office he inherited, Roosevelt seizes upon the event as a potential campaign issue. Keith never raises his voice or shouts. His whole performance is level but with a lot of vocal nuance. Keith had a naturally gruff voice that fits with our image of the Rough Rider Teddy. He uses tone and pacing to emphasize some deep philosophical ideas well at the same time laughing at himself for taking things so seriously.

Keith has a bit of an advantage in his performance by playing opposite Director/Actor John Huston who plays Secretary of State John Hay. Huston had another one of those great voices and the two of them crossing swords in the White House or out on the shooting range made for some wonderful scenes in the movie that contrasted nicely with the action adventure scenes set in Northern Africa. Keith gets some nice moments of power conveying the certainty of his foreign policy. Roosevelt was know as a man of action and that's exactly how he is represented here. Not by having him run around in circles crying Bully every five minutes but by speaking forcefully and decisively. His actions are not shown to be short sighted or politically motivated but rather, that he understood the political advantage his manner and policies provided him.

Picture 3The closest the film comes to mocking Roosevelt is in a scene where he tries to describe to a man from the Smithsonian, how he wants the grizzly bear he shot to be displayed. He poses with hands up and growls, and encouraged by his daughter, repeats the pose and growl on a table. Part of it is political theater, but mostly it comes across as the enthusiasm of a man who knows what he wants. Keith's jovial nature in the scene contrasts effectively with an earlier scene in the wilderness with an entourage in tow as he speaks about the taking of the bear with a magnificent vista behind him. He is proud of the accomplishment but also sad. He expresses an admiration for the grizzly that seems heart felt and warm, again mostly because of the vocal variety he uses. He smiles with his voice and speaks wistfully about America's place in the world.

Connery and Keith never shared any scenes in this film. Their characters are an ocean apart but very similar in nature. In the closing of the movie is the closest we come to an interaction as Roosevelt, suffering from blindness in one eye, sits at the foot of his bear and reads a note from the Rasuli, describing their places in the world. The two actors would share the screen a few years later in the execrable "Meteor" but nothing there matches the power of Connery's voice over narration as Keith sits in silence and acts with just his shoulders and hands in the scene.

While Brian Keith being ignored is a disappointment since he never had another part equal to that role, the second actor ignored is a crime beyond my comprehension. If you were to ask almost anybody in the movie business, what are the most culturally influential films of the 1970s, there are really two main answers. "Star Wars" is a juggernaut that turned the geek audience into the main driving force of popular culture today. All the comic book movies that dominate the screen these days are descended from that George Lucas film in 1977. Yet it was two years earlier that the ground began to shift, the blockbuster mentality began to rule, and the talent of Steven Spielberg was recognized by the world. The failure to nominate Steven Spielberg for the best film he ever made is probably a result of jealousy by other Academy members and hubris by Spielberg himself. The failure of the actors branch to mention Robert Shaw is inexplicable.

"Jaws" is a film that everyone who watches movies knows about, and anyone who loves  movies cherishes. The story behind the making of the film has been told before. So has the story of the impact of the film. This is not the first time I have complained about the neglect of Robert Shaw either. As a vocal advocate of this movie I will freely admit that this is not an unbiased opinion. I consider it a duty to remind the world on a regular basis of the greatness of this film, and this post gives me the opportunity to do so through the means of promoting a great screen performance.

I only hope that this fan made poster is right and we get an anniversary release this coming summer. I have done maybe a dozen posts over the years on some aspect of this film. It is a film I know I can say I have literally seen at least a hundred times because every year since it has been available to rent or or buy on VHS, watch on cable or on laser disc or DVD, or Blu ray, I have done so approximately four times a year. It is downloaded on my Kindle right now, waiting for an opportunity during a long wait in line or a medical appointment that is taking too long to get to. One of the reasons that it is so repeatable is the performance of the aforementioned Mr. Shaw. It is a part that is fascinating every time I watch it and there is always something new and amazing to discover.

3450810_stdTo begin with, the character of "Quint", although introduced in the first act of the film, doesn't reappear in the story until halfway though the movie. That first introduction is incredibly memorable, with Shaw scraping the chalkboard and chewing his food during the town council meeting. He condescends to everyone in attendance and then walks out of the scene. The force of his personality lingers over the meeting and the rest of the film. We know this smug, superior fisherman in the ancient sweater jacket and muttonchops is going to return and be a pivotal player in the story.
While he does pop up in one brief moment, chuckling to himself over the amateurs who think they can bring in the shark, his return to the story takes place on his ground. The business he runs is filled with stewing cauldrons of shark cartilage and homemade liquor.  His self assurance is spat out at the way he mocks Richard Dreyfuss's characters attempt to provide some credentials by mentioning the America's Cup. Shaw's English background helped make the flinty New England  accent more realistic. His devil may care costuming impresses us with his working class manner of thinking. He is a man who knows his place in the world and is completely confident in it up to the end. Look at the body language as he surveys the equipment that Hooper is bringing aboard, he might just as well have spit. screenshot-med-31

The on set legend is that Shaw disliked Dreyfuss and that dislike carried over to his performance. Shaw was also an alcoholic who needed just one drink to turn mean. It sounds like he was the perfect fit for the role. I recently saw "The Godfather" and Sterling Hayden who played Captain McClusky in that film was originally supposed to take the role of Quint, but tax complications kept him out and fortuitously put Shaw in. I can imagine Hayden fitting the part with his haggard look and somewhat raspy voice, but the character would have played very differently. I think he would have come off as an old man set in his ways and believing in them. Shaw provides some of that, but he also manages to suggest that he is just a little off hinged.

For example, the Limerick he recites as Mrs. Brody is dropping off her city slicker husband to go on the shark hunt, sounds so much more snarky and odd coming from a younger man and one who is taking such glee in sharing it out of nowhere. Quint projects it across the sounds of the Orca being loaded and he smiles knowingly as he gets to the somewhat dirty payoff. Shaw almost puts a chuckle in his voice but stops just short of being cloying. Shaw plays Quint as if he is tickled at the chance to show up all these land lubbers. Of course he is also the master of his own boat and while Brody does complain back at one point, Shaw makes it clear in near silhouette and with a frozen posture, that he is having none of it.

Carl Gottlieb, the credited screenwriter along with book author Peter Benchley, largely gives credit to Shaw for the most famous monologue since Shakespeare. The story he shares is a ghost story about the demons who have haunted him and turned him into the character he is. The fact that Shaw sells the story makes it all the more jaw dropping. This one scene would have won the award for any number of actors. The five minutes in this scene trump the whole five minute performance of Beatrice Straight in "Network". Of course the role was not limited to that one scene and just about everywhere else, he burns up the screen with his stare, his grin or his hat. The by-play with Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, exists in a friendly but condescending universe.
The three leads are all well cast and well played, but it is the prickly off-kilter Quint who gets the best scene and makes the most memorable impression. Robert Shaw played a series of tough guy roles over the years. Some of them steely like Red Grant in "From Russia With Love", or Doyle Lonnegan in "The Sting". Others were playful and heroic like the pirate in "Swashbuckler". "Quint encapsulates both spirits and puts a haunting backstory in the mouth of a master actor. It's nice that George Burns got an Oscar and a new career from his role in "The Sunshine Boys", but history shows that the Academy can make a mistake in the interests of sentimentality. It is my opinion that they did so in 1975.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Star Wars Poster Finally Ready

SAMSUNGWay back in 1987, I visited my favorite store in Hollywood, "Hollywood Book and Poster". At that time they were located on Las Palmas, just North of Hollywood Blvd. It was a cavernous room with high ceilings which made it possible to display all the cool new posters that were for sale. I'd purchased a number of items over the years, usually in the $10-$40 range. The most notorious find was the original "Revenge of the Jedi" poster I bought when the movie was still called "Revenge of the Jedi" in December of 1982. Last year I took it to a screening of the Drew Struzan Documentary and the artist signed it for me. If you click on the image it will take you to my story about that day.

1987 was the Tenth anniversary of  the original release of "Star Wars". When I walked through the store that day, I spotted a beautiful lithograph poster on a thick piece of paper stock that took my breath away. It was a pricey item, at $120. I'd not seen anything like it and because I am a geek, I decided I had to have it. It became one of many Christmas gifts to the family that were a tradition between my wife and I.

It was much too nice to put in one of the standard poster frames you can get at Aaron Brothers or other stores, which I use to display many of my other posters. The idea of having to bend a corner to fit it into a prefabricated frame was an anathema to me. We decided to wait and get it custom framed. Flash forward twenty-five years: we were moved into our house for about eighteen years and I decided to do an inventory of my posters.   One of the things I find is that poster I bought back in '87 and I had done nothing with it, time to remedy that. After having had several pieces done at a local business that specializes in framing (Richards Framing), I knew that the project would not be cheap. So again I bide my time and wait for an opportunity to splurge.

The opportunity came up as I am celebrating my 57th birthday this year. There is a new Star Wars movie coming, and it turns out, as I expected, that the poster I bought a print of in 1987 was painted by Drew Struzan himself. It was a print run of 3000 and he had signed them all. I suspect this was one of the projects that ended up unhappily with the agent he worked with at the time and was mentioned in the documentary. I sure hope he got paid because the image is fantastic.

I just returned from my friendly locally owned and operated business, where Karen, the owner, has done a fantastic job on the project. I have several images to share of the project.
IMG_1018We picked out the matting based on the colors in the poster and she has a very sharp eye for color. This is a perfect match of the blue and orange hues found in the art work.

IMG_1019I tried to get a slightly different view with this second shot and I turned off the flash. Although neither of these images does justice to the poster itself, the mat and framing work is pretty evident. At the moment I don't have it up on the wall but I expect that to be remedied shortly. I will include a shot or two at the bottom of this post when I get that done.

At the foot of the poster is the numbering of the lithograph and the signature of the artist, it is just below and off to the right of the image of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. I tried to get a close up, but I'm working with a pretty basic older digital camera and I don't always know what I'm doing.
IMG_1022You can see that this is number 739 of the 3000 prints in this run. It's a sweet little birthday gift that originated as an impulse Christmas gift and has germinated into one of the nicest pieces of movie memorabilia in my collection of geek worthy stuff. I hope you enjoyed the share and if you can ever make it to our neck of the woods, I'd be happy to have you come and look at it in person. It will definitely distract you from the debris in the rest of the house.

Here is a link to Struzan's site where you can pick up an Artist's Proof of this beauty.