Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

This will be brief because there is not much to say about the film. It is not particularly deep, the story goes exactly where you expect it to, and there was not anything outstanding in the way the film is put together. As I said to my companions afterwards, "There is a reason this is playing in August and not November". Normally, Meryl Streep would be a magnet to draw some attention for a film, but she gives one of the least effective performances I've seen her do. She is not bad, but there is nothing special about her work except that she looks like she managed to learn to play some guitar.

The elements of the film that I thought were worthy include Ricki's confrontation with the step-mother of her now adult children. Both Meryl and Audra MacDonald sold this scene with understated fury and resentment. That's about as far as any fireworks there are in the movie. Rick Springfield not only holds his own with Marvelous Meryl, but seems to be more of a real character than her weary and frayed Rock wannabe. There was also some effective lampooning of "Whole Foods" market and weddings planned by environmental citizens. Both subject provided a couple of chuckles in the film.

Kevin Kline is largely wasted as Ricki's ex husband. His character comes across as ineffectual and mostly there to make the phone call that brings Ricki back to the family she is estranged from. Mamie Gummer looks like she could be Meryl's daughter (oh wait, she is, good casting), she should have had a lot more to do in the story since her character is the principle engine that drives the premise of family reunion. She has one scene where she is a complete bitch, and then two scenes where she is silently a needy child again. Because the story is so conventional, she has nowhere to go.

The music in the film is fine. It largely plays to the older audience that the movie seems to be targeted at. There are a lot of stage performance sequences and they sound competent. Rick Springfield and the other guys are professional musicians so that makes sense. Ricki never made the big time, but you can see that she loves the music. I'm not sure why it was necessary to have everyone at the weddding climax of the film act as if she had a social disease. The awkwardness that some of the scenes create is artificial because the extras and the rest of the cast are directed to be dumbfounded by her presence and actions, and we can't tell why they would feel that way.

You can tell that there was just not as much here as there ought to be by looking at the lazy poster. Photoshopped Meryl and a tagline that tells you almost nothing.This is a very average movie that is not embarrassing but not something you would ever want to see a second time. I did not dislike it as much as I remained mostly indifferent to it. The screenwriter Diablo Cody did give us a couple of good lines. I liked the philosophy that it's not your kids job to love you, it's your job to love your kids. Had there been a little bit more of the family dynamic and a little bit less concert footage, the film would be better, but still not a great movie, just one that would be more worthy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I love 1960s spy stuff. James Bond was born in the sixties, Patrick Magoohan was Danger Man, Johnny Rivers killed it with his spy themed "Secret Agent Man" and Mel Brooks spoofed it with "Get Smart". Even before I'd seen my first Bond film, I saw "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." on television. When I heard that a movie version was planned, I was relatively pleased. I know there are people who hate the idea of a classic show being adapted for movie screens. The list of failures is long: "Lost in Space", McHale's Navy", "The Flintstones". Video bins are littered with 60s shows re-imagined as big screen entertainment. The hope is that you will get an occasional "Addams Family" or "The Fugitive", the reality is you end up with "Sgt. Bilko". So, which way did it go with the latest effort to rob our childhoods to feed our adult addictions?

The movie version of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." gets a lot of things right. It also leaves out some of the things that you treasured. In the end, it works as a stand alone concept because the only things that really remain from the show, are the concept and time period. By sticking to the time period of the original series, the Cold War years of the 1960s, the film manages to keep the tension between East and West as a background. More importantly, they get to costume the leads in stylish 60s garb. One of my favorite things about Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" was the way he captured the vibe of the early 60s. I have not watched a minute of "Mad Men", but I suspect this movie would do the set decoration and costuming on that series proud. Henry Cavill, who plays the Napoleon Solo character, is dressed in stylish suits in every scene. The fabrics are vivid and the cut flattering. Although they would look a bit old fashioned now, they would carry a lot of retro cache with them.  Armie Hammer's Illya Kuryakin is not wearing the high turtleneck sweater that was practically a trademark of the character, but the Henley styled shirts and plain suits he does wear are perfectly appropriate. The women are the ones who get shown off to the greatest advantage with some mod evening wear from the villainess. The girl that helps the two spies out (a standard storyline from the 60s show) has some cute 60s outfits that would be snapped up in an instant by hipster thrift store shoppers.

The plot really feels like it could be taken from a lost episode of the show. An East German girl is being used by the spy network, to locate her missing father, a nuclear genius who has technology that gives it's owners great powers. A loose band of Nazi sympathizers have the Doctor captive and are using his knowledge to gain power and build bombs. Most superhero franchises start with origin stories, and this film does the same thing. It attempts to explain how Russian and American spies, begin working together. The TV show never bothered with such background, it simply presented the covert network as a functioning entity from the beginning and then focused on the case for that week. Creating a background story for the agency is the biggest add by Guy Richie and his collaborators. The problem is that it leaves out stuff that made the original series cool, at least to us old enough to remember it. The badges, secret entrance to headquarters, briefings by Mr. Waverly, and the communication gadgets are all missing from the movie. Solo is given a backstory that makes him more Alexander Monday than James Bond. Someone decided that Ilya needed psychological problems to balance out his perfect physical capabilities. The changes work for a big screen adaption but they do distance the audience that might have been drawn in to the film by their love of the series.

Some of the things that work well in this film include the opening section where the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin is chasing after the American spy Napoleon Solo. The car chase and running gun fight are worthy stunts for an opening to a spy thriller. The banter between the two spies is also one of the things that Guy Richie brings to the movie. Anyone seeing his London based crime thrillers knows that snappy dialogue and quick exchanges are trademarks of his work. Hammer does not get quite as many of these lines as Cavill does, but he does get a lot of the physical reaction shots that make a joke pay off. Alicia Vikander is in her third film of the year with this movie. I thought she was great in both "Seventh Son" and "Ex Machina" , the later of which she should always flaunt on her resume. She does not get to do a lot of action material in this movie, but she is definitely more than just the damsel in distress. Hugh Grant is in the film but very little. if there is another in the franchise I know his role will be expanded. The split screen effect used during the storming of the island fortress was an efficient way to get through what might have been a long sequence very effectively, I could do with less shaky cam in the pursuit that follows.

One mistake that I think the film makers make is that they don't use the original Jerry Goldsmith music effectively. Take a look at how the "Mission Impossible" series has managed to weave the iconic song into those films. They may owe half their box office take to Lalo Schiffrin. The U.N.C.L.E. theme is in the film but only as an exit instrumental rather than as a transition piece. It has been altered from a big horned, bass heavy theme into a nearly unrecognizable conga tune. The result was one of the least satisfying parts of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film a lot, but there are things to fix to make it as much fun as it should have been. If Guy Richie and his writing partners want some advise for the sequel, they can reach me on channel D.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Howling (1981) Patrick McNee Salute/Joe Dante Festival

Werewolf films are plentiful but not as scary as they once were. "Twilight" seems to have turned shape shifting human/wolves into domesticated pets.  1981 however, was a landmark year for werewolf based movies. From April to August we got "Wolfen", "An American Werewolf in London" and this subversive genre bender that combined humor and horror before it' more famous counterpart was released in mid summer. "The Howling" is a low budget horror film that used humor to differentiate itself from more traditional drive-in cinema. A clever script and efficient directing and editing make this a film that everyone should see.

Last night I attended a return visit from master horror film maker Joe Dante, to the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood for another program sponsored by the American Cinematique. Just a couple of months ago we were treated to s special presentation of his two "Gremlins" films. Last night focused on one film but two film makers. Joe Dante, the director of "The Howling" and Patrick Macnee, one of the stars of the film. Mr. Macnee passed away at the end of June, and this was a fitting film to feature since it was one of his biggest roles in an American film. (The Cinematique will also be playing "This is Spinal Tap" in the near future.)

Mr. Dante shared a number of stories about Patrick Macnee, including the fact that he was a nudist, which somehow seems to fit in pretty well with the cult like atmosphere of this film. The budget for the movie was one million dollars. (That is not a mistake, that is a cheap budget for a cheaply made film). Dante revealed that his directors contract was non-union and he received no residuals for performance of the movie. He also acted as an editor and before he was paid, the film company went out of business. So although this is one of his big successes and his first big movie, he has never seen a dime of cash in relationship to it.  As the audience warmed up, a number of questions were asked and most of them were pretty simple: How did you cast Dee Wallace, What was the role of Rick Baker on the Film, how did you work with Pino Donaggio? The Rick Baker question may be the most important one. Baker was scheduled to do the film and had worked on much of the special effects make-up, but he was poached by John Landis for "An American Werewolf in London" and they had a bigger budget. Rob Bottin, was a protege of Bakers and he took over and made the film himself. Robert Picardo, who played Eddie in the film, had to endure a couple of overnight make-up and set design sessions. It's hard to believe but he spent up to a dozen hours in some cases being set up for the transformation sequences.

I'll get back to some of the behind the scenes material in a minute, let's take a couple of minutes to talk about the film itself. With the first shots, we are plunged into the middle of a news story about a serial killer who has contacted a local newswoman who has agreed to meet him. The cops and the newsroom editors are on a radio link, but that's as much back up as she gets. Hollywood in those days was pretty seedy (although according to Joe Dante, it had nothing on Times Square in Manhattan in the 70s). Karen White, the Dee Wallace character, agrees to meet "Eddie" the calling killer, in a porn shop. She is to look for one of the peep show booths marked with a smiley face sticker. In a modern world where emoji are ubiquitous, that might not seem a big deal, but in 1981, it was a little subversive to use the cutesy image as the talisman of a nut job killer. That sticker showed up in three other shots in the film and nearly stamps "LOL" on the screen for us. Karen survives an attack but is suffering from PTSD and can't remember much about what happened. The TV psychologist who assisted in profiling the killer, invites her and her husband to a retreat, known as the Colony, to get some group help and recovery time. Dr. Waggner (a name that is based on the director of the original Wolf Man movie from forty years earlier) is a proponent that people be in touch with their wilder animal sides,although as played by mild mannered and dignified Patrick Macnee, you would not suspect any danger. Of course something is not right at the Colony and all kinds of hell breaks loose.
This is where you will get a lot of horror movie and Werewolf based tropes being used to build suspense and then being turned with a quick visual shot or comments. At one point, another couple is watching the original "Wolf Man" on late night TV and just as the issue of how one would become a werewolf comes up, there is Maria Ouspenskayain the background explaining it. Or as a call is being made to compare investigative information, one of the people on the phone has to put down their copy of Ginsburg's "Howl". It doesn't hurt the humor at all that John Carradine, who had a fifty plus year career in Hollywood, also starred in films like The House of Frankenstein" and "The House of Dracula" so he fits in with all the Werewolf mythology like a bouquet of wolf-bane.

The real stars of the movie though are the special effects make up and the transformation scenes. A combination of prosthetics, air bladders and make up wizardry, produce some of the most authentic and frightening horror effects of the day. When you add in some of the scenes of sensuality and the medical descriptions  in the morgue sequence, you get a great set up but the payoff actually lives up to it. If you watch the trailer above, you will get a splendid preview of the kinds of inventiveness dominate the last third of the picture. Like most films of this time, after a quick opening, it is a slow build to the climax, rather than a series of mini climaxes along the way. (That sentence is also fraught with sensuality).

Dante pointed out last night that there was only one "Werewolf Suit" for the film, and that the attack at the end which seems to feature a dozen werewolves is all an accomplishment of editing. Somehow they got an extra fifty thousand dollars to work on the make-up effects. The studio was so thrilled with the dailies, they would not allow the scenes to be cut down. Although it had been the plan originally to have the transformation completed in one continuous shot, that concept had to be abandoned for cost reasons. It also would have created a story problem with the victims staring at the long transformation. In fact, when a group of kids auditioning for a show on the next stage, were shown the scene, one of them asked why the lady just stood there instead of running?.

In addition to Robert Picardo, who became a favorite of Joe Dante, B-Horror icon Dick Miller appears in this film as a bookstore owner. His interaction with the investigating journalist is some of the best material in the film. Dante says that originally, Miller was not very enthusiastic because the part was so small, but now thinks of it as his own favorite performance. You can see the future gun counterman from "The Terminator" in the bookstore owner. Dante said that the store they used was originally on Hollywood Blvd. but like most things from the old days, it is long gone. He said they needed to do virtually nothing to set dress the store for the film, it was exactly as it appears in the movie.

The script was considerably reworked by fellow director John Sayles, who added all of the new age cult material to the movie. That background is one of the things that raises the Howling above several other horror films of the day, it had a perspective connected to the times and it reflected that in the plot. So, a ton of good actors, a creative make up team, a shanghaied screenwriter and a novice director, manage to put together a pretty terrific horror film. It has it's 1980s pedigree all over it, but I would say that is a medal of pride rather than a badge of shame.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Inherit the Wind: The Argumentative August Blogathon

The blogathon that we are participating in here, is designed to focus on films in which a courtroom battle is featured and argument is the main source of drama. I know a little bit about films, a little bit about argument and a little bit about "Inherit the Wind". I hope that such a background will reassure you that I am not troubling my own house for no purpose. My purpose is to bring attention to a fifty-five year old film that is based on an ninety year old case that will prove that in nearly a hundred years, we as a culture are still capable of being riled up by events that we see as earth shattering, but in the long run are only a small part of human progress.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, let's start with the fact that it is largely based on real events. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" may be only a hazy memory to you from your American History class, but it was nationally famous in it's time. If the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, has dominated the news in recent weeks, imagine a similar kind of focus on a local trial in 1925. In reaction to religious anxiety about Darwin's theories on evolution, in Tennessee, the Butler Act had made it a crime to teach evolution in state funded schools. Nearly a hundred years later, we have the same kind of preclusion against teaching anything that might challenge evolution. Intelligent Design as a theory is heavily criticized by academics and scientists, with similar criticisms as those of evolution from the 1920s. So in essence, the same battle is taking place with the presumptions reversed. The tide of history repeats itself.

One of the reasons that the Scopes trial drew so much attention was the confrontation between two towering figures of the early twentieth century. Clarence Darrow was a renown labor attorney who migrated to criminal and civil cases and in a hundred cases where the death penalty was at stake had lost only once. The year before he was involved in the Scopes Trial, he had defended Leopold and Loeb in one of the early "trials of the century". The two were University students who had committed a "thrill" killing of a fourteen year old boy. Two other movies have been based on that case, "Compulsion" features Orson Wells playing essentially Clarence Darrow. Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope", has no trial in it so it does not fit the criteria for this blogathon, but you should see it anyway. In the current film, two time Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond, the character based on Darrow.

His opponent in the actual case was three time Democratic Nominee for President and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Imagine if Hillary Clinton or John Kerry came forward to prosecute a local case and oppose a political philosophy they abhorred. Bryan was a populist who was known as the Great Commoner and he was also a famous orator, which meant so much more in the days before mass media. He was a strong opponent of Darwinism and took his religious faith so seriously that he considered it an obligation to participate in the trial. He had spoken on the Chautauqua circuit for years, arguing that the theory of evolution was a threat to the foundations of morality and an evil force in the world. In the film, he is portrayed by two time Academy Award winning actor Fredrick March as Matthew Harrison Brady.

The events surrounding the trial in the film, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no not that one) are somewhat exaggerated, and an elaborate background of the town minister, his daughter and the high school teacher who was being prosecuted, was all invented for the film.  The circus like atmosphere of the trial however was real. More than two hundred reporters covered the trial. It was big international news. A radio broadcast of the trial did appear on WGN and there were trained chimps performing on the lawn of the courthouse. The trial  in Scopes was a stunt designed to challenge the law, and substitute teacher John Scopes purposefully incriminated himself to make a prosecution more likely. In the film, Bertram Cates, the teacher on trial is presented in a much more noble light, as a beacon of knowledge to high school students everywhere. Future "Bewitched" star Dick York plays Cates with sincerity more than anyone else in the film.

The play, film and coverage of the original trial by journalist  H.L. Mencken are all heavily slanted against the prosecution case and against Bryan/Brady. In a battle over ideas, the story here is that the media influenced public opinion more than the arguments did.Henry Drumond (Tracy) understands the importance of the media but despises some of it's practitioners, including the character modeled on Menken,a straight dramatic role from Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck.His job in the story is to ground out any nuance in the arguments of the case and help sensationalize them for the world. His cynicism at everyone else in the story actually results in him being one of the sadder characters in the story. Here is a good example of dialogue that reflects the snide attitude he has toward the locals, but it also extends to everyone else as well:

Townswoman: You're the stranger, ain'tcha? Are you looking for a nice, clean place to stay?
E. K. Hornbeck: Madam, I had a nice clean place to stay... and I left it, to come here.

Drummond's approach to the case is to undermine the law under which Cates is being prosecuted. The problem is the judge will not allow any of the expert testimony in defense of evolution to be heard. Henry Morgan as the judge appears to be a strict constructionist who believes it is the legislature that should make the laws, not the courts. He takes the very valid position that the law is not on trial but the accused is. Social Justice warriors will find this belief old fashioned but it happens to be the correct legal interpretation. Ultimately, the importance of a single accused man is not what attracted all the attention. The supposed conflict between religion and science is the draw. Until a key moment in the trial, the prosecution had the upper hand and all the best lines and public support. The film though does go out of the way sometimes to make Brady a figure of ridicule. There is a scene where he is speaking with a bib around his neck and he appears to be picnicking at the trial, burping and wiping his greasy fingers from fried chicken on his clothes. Matthew Harrison Brady is portrayed as being out of touch and a figure from the past. His eloquence is right for a tent show revival or Chautauqua stage, but bellowing on the radio isn't going to work. He has sincere religious beliefs that are referenced during the trial and that is the mistake that he makes as a prosecutor. Drummond baits him into basing arguments from the bible and then calls on him as an expert witness on the book. In the real world this sort of thing is not likely to happen right? The prosecutor being a witness cross examined by the defense,that's ridiculous. It's also just what happened in this case. The real Clarence Darrow cross examined the real William Jennings Bryan for two hours on the seventh day of the Scopes Trial.

This is the key dramatic point for the film. The confrontation of the two political giants and the two acting giants, in a courtroom confrontation. Fireworks do ensue but inevitably the imbalance of the views comes crashing down on the scene. Drummond trips up Brady with inconsistencies in the stories of the bible. He uses the average persons presumption against paradox as a fulcrum to wedge the audience and the jurors away from their inclination to side with the Biblical text. He twists Brady's word to make it seem as if Brady is holding himself out as God's spokesmen on Earth, a self concept that would be at odds with any average man's view of another in most situations. The legal argument is largely abandoned in favor of a generic attack on fundamentalist beliefs, some of which are backed by evidence but many of which are unsupported ad hominem attacks directed at the prosecutor rather than the case. As Brady sputters to reconcile contradictions, Drummond mocks him mercilessly in front of the jury. It makes for a great dramatic sequence but a lousy piece of legal argument. In the Scopes trial, all of that interchange was stricken from the record and the jury was admonished to ignore it. In the drama of the film, one character figuratively performs a  coup de grâce on his opponent.

The freedom to offer controversial points of view in a classroom is sacrosanct from the view of those with tenure. The sciences and math being two fields where not much controversy is supposed to exist, but there is plenty of controversy in science. That is part of the scientific method, to continuously test the theories and beliefs that are "settled".  For a parallel to the evolutionary debate of nearly a hundred years ago, look at the climate issues discussed now. Imagine a "non-believer" challenging the settled science of climate change in a classroom today. They are very likely to be chastised and hounded ("denier") because they don't accept orthodoxy. One thing that has not evolved, is the human desire to control other people's  thoughts. The difference today is that the shoe is on the other foot.

Modern audiences might find the style and performances of the actors in this film to be stilted or hammy. March's character is supposed to be that way because he comes from an old school of declamation that cherished bombast and speeches as sermons. Yet even Tracy's Drummond has moments of corn built into it and that will strike today's audiences as mannered. The humanist approach taken by Drummond is a fair one. He acknowledges that change comes at a cost. Look in the following passage:

“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.
Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.
Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat.
Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.

The actual Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

When I read arguments on line about films, especially older films, that get criticized for their effects, style, pacing or racism,  I am reminded that progress costs us. Technology may allow us to see things that could not be visualized before CGI, but what happens to our sense of gravity or physics? Editing and digital video may make a story move quicker, but we lose character and suspense. An evolved mind should dismiss the thinking of the past, but you will lose the ability to enjoy the wonder of the past from their perspective.

"Inherit the Wind" reminds us that 1928 was a different time, that 1961 was equally different as well. The argument continues, what is progress and what is worth keeping? Film makers and society continue to try to answer that question, and to honest, the answers are not always satisfactory.

Dune 1984

Having done an extensive review and historical post just last December for this movie, I will refer you to that page on "30 Years On". This film is a personal favorite of mine, a characteristic it shares with my oldest daughter Allison. We had originally planned to go together but she had some other conflict and missed out tonight. Since I'd already bought the tickets, my wife agreed to go with me and I'm happy to say she liked the film quite well.

Once upon a time I might have felt a little guilty defending this movie against it's detractors, but that hesitation is gone. This movie is much better than it's reputation and it was even better tonight than I had remembered. The image on the big screen really brings out the spectacular set design and the quality of the costuming. The music is impressive from the beginning and the work by rock veterans Toto, combined with a little added "spice" from Brian and Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois with the prophesy theme was extra special. Coming at us in full theater sized dolby stereo made it sound really impressive along with the sound design of the film which was the one category that the movie was acknowledged for by the Academy.

As I sat watching and listening to the film, I was surprised at how well the plot really did develop. I had thought before that it was somewhat clunky, relying on verbalized inner thoughts to hold things together. When I paid close attention, I think half of that dialogue could go away and the movie would still make sense and be a bit less obvious.  The villains do chew some scenery, but the visualizations and their maniacal gleams, remind you how awful the Harkonnens really are. The sequence with the Baron showering in who knows what effluent and then taking sexual pleasure in the murder of a frightened young man was very David Lynch and very disturbing. The rest of the cast succeeds because they were well chosen and played their parts with a bit more subtlety. I especially appreciated Jürgen Prochnow as the doomed Duke Leto. He has some lines that end up resonating bigger themes in the story and if you listen to them, he sounds both sad and inspiring.

I can't say enough about the look of the film, it was just as amazing as I always thought it was. With the exception of some of the spacecraft shots and one or two scenes with the sandworms, these effects can stand up to scrutiny and outclass a lot of the CGI junk that gets foisted on us nowadays. One bit of collectible ephemera I neglected to share in the post on "30 Years On", was the standee for the VHS release that I snagged from the Music Plus store back in 1985. Here it is in the back patio room where it has sat since we moved in to this house 21 years ago. That's a three dimensional display with the foreground figures on one section and the background on another.

There was a fair sized crowd at the theater, "The Sherman Oaks Arclight". Since this is probably a big nostalgia piece for any of you reading, the "Arclight" in the valley is located at the site of the old Sherman Oaks Galleria. You know, the mall featured in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Valley Girl". It is now an outdoor shopping area with a few upscale stores and a few stylish eateries. For an 80's classic like "Dune", it was fun to think about as we walked from the parking structure.

Wearing my "Visit Scenic Arrakis" shirt, designed by my daughter, and sitting with my favorite person in the world.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mission Impossibe: Rogue Nation

Thirteen Minutes of pontification. It's really a great action  film.