Friday, May 27, 2016

30 Years On: We Are Catching Up this Summer.

This project did not get finished two years ago for all kinds of reasons. I haven't posted a new entry in almost a year, but I have not forgotten it. I have some time this summer and I am going to get it done. Seven more to polish off. There ain't no mountain high enough to keep me from finishing. [At Least Eventually]

30 Years On A Great Year For Movies

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Nice Guys

Here is a film with no redeeming social value whatever, except that it will tickle your funny bone, startle you with sudden shock and leave you feeling invigorated afterwards. The film is a hoot and if there is anyone still living in America with a sense of humor, this film was made for you. While it it not politically incorrect in any way, it features characters that are so amusingly not hip, that the irony police might be called out. "The Nice Guys" is vulgar but not cynical. There is plenty of violence played for humor, but there are real reactions to most of those moments which let the film be much friendlier than you have any right to hope for.

The movie has a retro feel because it is set in the 1970s but also because the characters will remind you of a dozen TV show detectives you may have watched in that era. Jim Rockford is one step away from being a partner in this detective agency, but that would turn the film into a takeoff of the three stooges rather than an homage to Abbot and Costello. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, the boozy private eye, as if he were a handsome Lou Costello. He has the double takes and flustered line delivery that would fit perfectly in a comedy place filler from 1948, "Abbot and Costello Meet the Bimbo". He even has a moment where upon discovering a corpse he becomes a dysphagiatic  mute.

Russell Crowe has settled into middle aged beefiness with as much grace as a guy can muster. He's not the matinee idol of twenty years ago, but he is still a hell of a good actor and he puts on some great comic chops here. Crowe and Gosling play off of one another in such a natural way that it is easy to imagine a series of films  featuring these characters. Of course I thought the same thing eleven years ago with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in pretty much the same roles. Shane Black may be cribbing from himself but at least he's doing it from "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" and not "The Last Boy Scout". The convoluted plot and the violent gangsters are standard for him, as is the involvement of a woman, more competent that the two leads, in this case March's thirteen year old daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice.

The Warner Brothers logo from the seventies is on the opening credits of the movie. The city of Los Angeles is in it's deep dark days of heavy smog overcast, and Hollywood was a sleaze factory of sex more than violence. Southern California residents will recognize the decay of the Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles River Bridge, and the intersection of Jefferson and Figueroa are not anything like they once were. [In fact, the bridge is gone now]. The hillsides of Hollywood though are played for great laughs and Ryan Gosling may be a comic genius because he manages to make the most incompetent Private Eye in the world, still come off as a sometimes insightful investigator, of course sometimes he just gets lucky.

I hope they do make this into an adult cartoon, ala "Archer" or at least plan a couple of other big screen adventures. It would be a shame to leave this much enjoyment to just the current movie season. This is my most anticipated movie of the summer, and The Temptations "Papa was a Rolling Stone" had me hooked from the first few frames. Plenty of soul music from the era plus a Bee Gees tune and Kiss anthem. It's as if they found one of the home made 8-track mix tapes from my old Cutlass and plugged it into the speakers for the film. Maybe it's the nostalgia factor that worked for me but I believe others much younger than me will get a kick out of this as well, burnt orange palate aside. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Aliens Loot Crate Un-Boxing

My first Un-Boxing Video, POW, Take that Social Media.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

TCM Film Festival Coverage Finale: A Double Dose of Barron and Burtt

I've saved my favorite events for the end of the Festival post. This was a tough choice because so many special moments were had by me at this years festival. The Vitaphone Presentation was incredibly enlightening and educational. It certainly gets me in the mood to learn more about the process and to seek out the films of that early sound era. Francis Coppola was  a personal high point because he was the first director I knew by name as a kid and seeing him in person was just a great emotional moment. "Fat City" was the best rediscovery of the Festival, Stacy Keach was magnificent in the film. "Shanghai Express" was a wonder to behold, the technical sophistication of the film in 1932 is a wonder. Ultimately, my geek side won out because there is just something about a couple of tech guys, talking about their own fascination with the process that acts like a magnet for me.

Special Effects wizard Craig Barron and Sound magician Ben Burtt, are the Dynamic Duo that always seem to impress. My first visit to the Festival was two years ago when I crashed a screening of my favorite movie that was being discussed extensively by these two.  Their avuncular personalities and attention to detail really impressed me and last year they repeated the accomplishment with an excellent presentation on another early classic. So I had high expectations this year as well.

Everyone has seen "It's A Wonderful Life"  enough times I'm sure to be dehydrated from the experience. I think this was my first time seeing it on the big screen however. My companions included my daughter Amanda and my friend Michael, who blogs at "It Rains...You Get Wet". We saw several films at the festival in his company, but I suspect this one might be his favorite. He has thought very carefully and thoroughly about it as is evidenced by his "Favorite Scenes" post from just a week ago.  In addition to the waterworks we all experienced, our special effects guys did a very nice job showing how some of the visual and sound elements of the film were achieved. There was a very nice power point presentation which visualized the bridge that Clarence and George both jump off of. The imaginary river and the pretty perfect process shot that goes with it were a complete surprise to me. I'd never have guessed that this was a shot that involved a large amount of camera trickery.
The composites that go into this shot were really pretty amazing, but it is put together so seamlessly that you would think they filmed on a actual bridge. We also got to see some miniatures that were used for the Baily house in the opening and the matte shots that help make up the second story of the old Granville house

There was an extensive discussion of some of the sound elements in the film as well. The crowd noises and wind sounds and the tinny piano that young Janie Baily plays as George is having his breakdown were not accomplished without some effort. As an extra treat there were a few deleted shots of Mr. Potter's mansion thrown into the mix, just so we can say the Academy archives had been fully plunged.

The second film they presented was even more fascinating and right up the special effects alley that these guys own. The  George Pal production of "War of the Worlds" is a spectacular looking movie with enough effects shots to keep an audience involved for hours. The extensive footage shown which described a brief twenty second shot of one of the Mars War Machines attacking a part of the city before it crashes was compelling as all heck. They pointed out a very amazing shot in which the model actually caught fire from one of the squibs that was used to simulated explosions as the attack takes place.

The combination of shots that was required to produce the effect of the war machines shields was just great. It's always incredible to me how the early film guys figured out all the things that had to be done to get a great shot. This movie is more than sixty years old but the sophistication of the techniques is impressive without any computer work at all. 
This reproduction of one of the war machines was on display in the Club TCM area of the Roosevelt Hotel. The puppetry, electronics and mechanical engineering required to make it all come together was fascinating to see. As I sat with a capacity crowd in the theater, I felt like I was being delivered my own "live" version of a DVD Special Feature.

There was also a demonstration of the manner in which some of the sounds of the attacking machines made was achieved.  A student group from a local technical college had brought in a high tension wire, stretched from floor to ceiling and you could hear the dynamic and other worldly sound that it made.

A bonus to the screening was the presence of co-star Ann Robinson, who after being introduced in the audience, stood up and answered a few questions and shared a few memories of making the film. There was an interesting publicity shot of a make up and costume look that had next to nothing to do with the picture. Ms. Robinson told us that it was just some publicity material that was tried out at the studio and never really used.It was an unplanned little extra that sometimes happens at events like this. Barron and Burtt were pleased to be able to add a little to their presentation with her input.

The new fan zone planned by TCM promises some backstage material from the TCM archives. I suspect that these interviews, demonstrations and slide presentations will be among the featured items at the site. I hope I'm right on that, and when I spend my money on it and support the channel, I will be able to revisit some of these great Movie Conversations. Ben Burtt and Craig Barron are on the top of my list of things I hope to find on "The Backlot".

Saturday, May 14, 2016

TCM Film Festival : Fat City 1972

If you have read on this blog to any depth at all, you know that i am a champion of 1970s films. This whole blog started as a project to catalogue the films I saw in the summers of the 1970s.  There is a sense of danger and grittiness to films from that era. They don't all end well, there are some very cynical views of life shown, and characters are often flawed in ways that real people are. They have their good points but the imperfections are substantial.

John Huston as a director is a solid choice for films featuring these kinds of characters. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Beat the Devil"" feel like they were warm up exercises for a movie like this. While it may not be a Forgotten Film for old movie geeks like me, "Fat City" is a movie that probably no one in any of my classes has ever heard of much less seen. The subject matter and the style of the director would be too grim for most cinema goers these days. Heck, I'm not even sure it could be made as an independent film in the current marketplace. The closest comparison to a contemporary movie I can think of is "The Wrestler". Both feature characters that are flawed and struggling to come to terms with their weaknesses. If you thought the end of  "The Wrestler" was tough, get ready to be punched in the gut because this movie is even more somber.  "Fat City" is a film of it's day and it belongs in the 1970s.

Susan Tyrell was the actress nominated for one of the least glamorous characters in movies this side of  Aileen Wuornos. Oma is a woman too used up and soaking in alcohol to be of much use to anyone. She sometimes seems like she has a heart but she is completely self centered and simply can't do anything to help the main character Tully with his own demons. She was one of the things I most remembered about seeing the film when it first came out and the last time I saw it, sometime in the early 1980s. Her subsequent career never seemed to give her a similar opportunity to shine and I recall that she passed away three or four years ago.

The greatest performance in the film is the lead and I am flabbergasted that Stacy Keach was not nominated for his role as the slightly past his expiration date boxer Billy Tully. From the dialogue free first five minutes of the film, Keach is magnetic. He feels so genuine as the abandoned former prodigy, embittered by bad luck in the ring and a wife who he loved deeply but who left him. He is coping with alcohol and working some of the toughest jobs there are to get by. The film is set in Stockton, California, an agricultural center and a city with a hard as flint personality. The actor seems to fit perfectly in this setting and as he starts to consider getting back into boxing, we have so much sympathy for him because he comes across as a guy trying to cope but in over his depth. The boxing sequences are fine but it is his scenes with Tyrell and a very young Jeff Bridges that gives the performance it's spark. There is a terrific scene where Billy returns to the gym where his former manager is training a new crop of prospects. We know that they stopped working together on bad terms and that the last time the down on his luck Tully saw his former coach, he borrowed twenty bucks from him. Unprompted, Tully acts as if the reason he is stopping by is to make good on that loan. We know how hard it was for him to earn that twenty bucks and how valuable it is to him, but he wants to pass it off as a trifling, to get back in with the crew. Keach gives a warm half smile and a shrug of his shoulders as a way of conveying all of this and it is a great moment.

The boxing milieu of this era may be long gone but it is shown here in all of it's difficult and hopeful sides. This is a life that seems truly hard, but it has the reward of accomplishment. Ernie Munger, the character played by Bridges is supposed to be an up and comer, discovered by Tully and groomed by his former manager, Ernie is himself something of a mess. He has a lot of potential but some of the same perils that Billy faced. It looks for a while like this movie will be about the two different trajectories these two are on. Instead, it is much more of a character and tone piece. Plot matters less than the feeling of sadness and hope that floats over all the characters. Despite the bad things that happen to each, there ends up being more compassion in this brutal existence than we have much right to expect. A cup of coffee, silently shared, holds the two boxers in each others orbt, long enough to see that although the battle is lost the fight goes on.

Stacy Keach received a very nice ovation as the guest before the screening. Eddie Muller, the noir expert and writer was the interviewer and he brought a nice sense of involvement to the event since the author of the novel the film was based on was a professional acquaintance, and his father wrote for the newspaper about fighters just like the ones we see here in the film. Keach was generous with his stories and clearly proud that the film has a great reputation at least among the cinema fans. He was probably already gone from the venue when the film finished which is too bad because the audience response was twice as enthusiastic. There was a literal roar of approval at the closing credits, which validates every positive thing you could say about this movie. This was one of my top three moments from the Festival. An unsentimental masterpiece by John Huston and actor Stacy Keach.

Friday, May 13, 2016

TCM FF: Cinema Paradiso

Movie lovers of all stripes should rejoice at an opportunity to see this ode to their own obsessions and especially on the big screen at the Chinese Theater.  This was the closing film of the festival and it was clearly chosen to celebrate the themes of the festival and the TCM Channel itself: Moving Pictures.  This sentimental story of a friendship between a little boy obsessed with the movies and the projectionist at the village theater, will surely bring one to tears if you let it wash over you without thought to anything more than the story and the feelings the film connects us with.

Cynics need not apply because this movie is manipulative as all heck, bit like a number of films shown at the festival, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", "It's a Wonderful Life", and "Rocky", it earns it's tears with characters and dialogue. It simply helps to come under the sway of it's spell to be an old movie weirdo. The last ten minutes of the film will evoke memories of our own passion for films and it will probably send you on a treasure hunt as well. You will have a strong desire to track down those movies that are referenced and enjoy them in their more complete form.

For the screening, actor Salvatore “Totò” Cascio, was present. He played the young boy who can't keep his mind on anything except the films playing at the theater in his Sicilian village. Almost forty now, he seems to have had a happy life trading on his role in the film and being beloved around the world. The translations were sometimes unnecessary because the laughter in his voice and the tone of his answers often said it all.

The Chinese theater is certainly more opulent than the Paradiso, with its benches and folding chairs. The magic of the projector, streaming images out of a lions head is captured almost the same as the image above. An audience is entranced by the wonders that take place in the dark. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

TCM FF: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

This film is so well known that it has been remade and there dozens of cultural references to it in the political world. In pop culture I just caught a reference to it in the new "Captain America: Civil War" film, as Tony Stark tries to talk to Steve Rogers, he asks Bucky, the Winter Soldier, to put down his weapon, and he refers to him as "Manchurian Candidate". This obvious reference to brainwashing comes up in a dramatic moment with a humorous context, and that is the way the whole film feels. It is a drama of political intrigue with assassination at it's heart, but it is filled with comic moments that make you shake your head at the audacity of the story telling and film making.

Amanda had never seen it before, despite the fact that it seems to be on our Retro Channel on a weekly basis (not TCM, I think it is a Fox feed). It was rediscovered in the mid 80s, and the story I heard was that Frank Sinatra asked one of his people why he never saw the movie on the late show, and they explained that he controlled the rights and had mostly pulled it from circulation after the JFK assassination. Frank decided it needed to be out and I remember going to a screening on the west side of L.A. when a baby shower was taking place at my friend Rick's house. He and I went to see it and had very similar reactions. We both thought the movie was great but it has some strange stuff in it.

Among the oddest things in the film is the meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra's characters on a train. The pick up lines she uses on him and the daffy way he responds to her are just so different, you wonder if they are in the same scene together, much less the same movie. Leigh's character has no reason to exist in the film at all, so maybe the dialogue was tweaked to give  her character something memorable to do.

Just about everyone else who made the picture is dead, but 94 year old Angela Lansbury is still around and she graced this screening with her presence. She is an impressive figure who has a mind sharp enough to put guest interviewer Alec Baldwin to shame. She was quick to come up with names and moments that Mr. Baldwin seemed only to half remember. It's not that he did a bad job, it's just that he seemed so much less engaged than the woman 37 years his senior who still is as sharp as a tack.
The audience was very appreciative and they should be. This was Lansbury's last Oscar nominated performance and except for a very few occasions, she slipped back into theater work and only returned to Hollywood for the TV series that she starred in for 12 years and 260 plus episodes. Which by the way has been off the air for twenty years if you want to feel a little old. She was terrific in the movie, but had the unfortunate luck to be up against a sixteen year old in the part of a lifetime in 1962. In an odd coincidence Patty Duke, the winner from that year, passed away only a few weeks ago.  One of the things that make film great for we fans however is that these performances will be around a long time after the stars have moved on. Although in Ms. Lansbury's case, that may never happen.

TCM FF: The Longest Yard

It's unfortunate that Burt Reynolds had to cancel on the Film Festival this year. I heard someone say there was an illness but I never saw an official explanation. He was scheduled to do one of the up close interviews and his would have made a great companion piece to run through the year to the Faye Dunnaway interview that did get done. The 80 year old star is an under rated actor in my view and he was a fixture on the film scene in the 1970s. Some fans of classic films might cut the date off for "Classics" nearly a decade earlier than this movie was released. I do see that it is a different era but I also have a broader version of the phrase "Classic Film".

Producer Albert S. Ruddy, who won the Academy Award for Best Picture with "The Godfather" and "Million Dollar Baby", did make it to the presentation and he puts forward a persuasive argument that this movie was substantially responsible for the wave of sports films that followed in the next few years. The underdog story is in fact a theme of this film but it turns out to be a lot deeper as well. I remember seeing this with my buddy Art Franz at the Garfield Theater in my home town of Alhambra. At the time it was the funniest adult style comedy I'd seen and it still holds up today. On my original project of Summer Movies from the 70s, my daughter wrote about this film for me while I was on a cruse to Alaska. It was nice to get to see it with her in a theater and watch her have the same kind of emotional reaction to the game as she described in her post almost six years ago.

Also appearing at the film was football legend Joe Kapp, the only player to have played in the Rose Bowl, Grey Cup, and Super Bowl. In the movie he plays the Walking Boss and definitely looks intimidating. His interview was a little awkward because he is nearly deaf and could not get the prompts from either Al Ruddy or the Sportswriter who was conducting the session. I did get a chance to shake hands and say hi to him outside the theater when we had gotten back in line for the next film of the day. He is 78 and not as on top of things as some are at that age but he was friendlier than all get out.

They finally got the story out about the local cops locking up much of the cast after a bar room altercation. It was interesting to hear that the prison guards in the movie were in jail one night before they were playing jailers themselves. When I listened to a podcast covering the festival recently, I heard that several more recent films that had been booked in the bigger venues were not drawing very well. This was effeminately one of those. It was a very moderate crowd, I suspect because the feature attraction was unable to make it. Listening to Albert Ruddy however made me glad that I came. He struck me as the kind of guy that Hollywood does not make anymore and that they really need more of.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

TCM FF: Double Feature with Elliot Gould

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Even though I am a 70s guy and have seen a ton of movies from the era, and the original project here focused on those kinds of film, there are still gaps in my experience. "The Long Goodbye" is one of those films I knew about but for some reason or another, I'd just not gotten around to see. Maybe the idea of a contemporary Philip Marlowe through me off. Anyway, the film festival this year afforded me the opportunity to see this on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater. In addition, it came complete with a brief discussion with the star Elliot Gould, conducted by TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz.

The opening of the movie is a deadpan ten minutes about a guy and his cat at three o'clock in the morning. Marlowe is no great shakes at housekeeping but he is a conscientious pet owner. He goes out of his way in two very different approaches to making the cat happy. It has nothing to do with the plot, it's all about establishing the character. Another character in the movie is the city of Los Angeles in 1973. The hippie chicks in the next apartment are naked most of the time, a guy like Marlowe with limited resources can still afford a canyon side apartment and the Malibu Colony is not packed with so many celebrities that people still can't get near it.

Everybody in the story has an agenda, and some of them are so difficult to figure out that you might as well give up. Sterling Hayden is a disturbed writer that is a client, a suspect and a friend at different points in the story. His wife is cryptic and distant from both he and Marlowe. The cops are pricks and Marlowe's friend, Terry, played by major league pitcher and notorious writer Jim Bouton, disappears after his wife is murdered. Director Mark Rydell, who made "The Cowboys" among many other films, plays a single minded mobster who is also looking for Terry, and he is truly psychotic.The story involves false leads,  hangdog characters and an aura of ennui  hangs over most everyone we meet. The plot is less important than the attitudes and the setting and it is a perfect embodiment of a 1970s movie. It may have been my daughter Amanda's favorite film of the festival.


There was a nice tribute clip that they showed before the interview and then Ben asked Questions but Mr. Gould went all over the place in answering. It reminded me of the old days of talk shows when the guest and host would have wide ranging conversations and take as much time as they wanted to talk about a point. 

M*A*S*H (1970)

Sunday morning found us returning to the festival after a long day before, (but not as long as Friday) and we were seated in the big house at the Chinese theater. Robert Altman really begins his esoteric movie style with this film. The rambling mostly improvised dialogue and blocking which would be a signature of his work for the remainder of his career, comes to prominence in this iconic anti-war movie. Centered on the Korean war but overtly dealing with issues in Vietnam, the rebellious spirit of 1970 is evident everywhere. This picture is the bookend for the seventies, the film it lost to for Best Picture that year, "Patton", was also a war film but much closer to the sensibilities of the 60s than the 70s.

Gould and co-star Donald Sutherland are the least glamorous film stars you can imagine. In contrast to Newman and Redford in "Butch Cassidy" the year before, these guys were unkempt and often covered in blood. Their language was salty ant heir hijinks were more schoolboy naughty than cool. Still they were very funny and the film managed to inspire the long running, much awarded television series of the same name. It is the least likely success story I can think of , trying to make this movie into a TV show. That it worked is again a testament to the fact that characters were more important than the plot.

This is a movie that is easy to watch on a regular basis. First because it is so funny, and second because you will notice new little things about the film each time. A joke or a prop that slipped by the first time will sneak in and give you another moments pleasure when you were not expecting it. The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces and accomplished actors. The last supper of "Painless Waldowski" is filled with faces that could be in a portrait of 70s film and tv stars, and it does not even include Robert Duvall, although Tom Skerritt does make the picture.

This was one of the presentations where the guest appeared after the film screened and again Elliot Gould did not disappoint. He was a little more focused but just as fun and the stories were all different from the night before.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

We have come to rely on Marvel to kick off the summer movie going season with a big splashy comic book adventure. Ever since "IronMan" eight years ago, there has been a steady stream of comic book product from this creative team. Fortunately we have been provided compelling stories and great characters for the most part. From my point of view, the weak link has been the standalone "Iron Man" sequels. Tony Snark, oops, Stark, is a great film personality who has often had to flounder in average material. Traveling in the opposite direction for the most part has been Steve Rogers. Cap has gotten more effective plot lines and more interesting dilemmas to deal with. The Avengers movies have been a good way to bring these characters together, but this is the best mash up of these two characters so far. Lots of other Avengers appear, but this is an "Iron Man" "Captain America" film.

As usual, I will dispense with a recap of the plot, you'll go see the movie and why would you want someone else to tell you the story you are about to pay $15 bucks to see? I will mention as few plot points as necessary to convey the idea of the film, so that yo have a bit of context for the commentary. The world gets a little paranoid about the collateral damage that occurs when the Avengers are called on to act. The idea that someone in charge should be calling the shots, rather than the extraordinary people who make up the team, has surfaced, and it seems like a necessary compromise to some of the Avengers, but others disagree. This is not a political blog and I don't want folks to be too irritated by what I'm about to say, but it seems very obvious to me. Tony Stark and Secretary Ross are stand ins for an ascendant view of foreign policy and military intervention. Extreme caution and world wide consensus before acting.   Steve Rogers and his allies are the old school version of cowboy diplomacy, act when yo see a threat and live with the consequences of your actions. "Civil War" is not just a clash between the superheroes, it is a clash over ideologies. The film is also not subtle about which side it favors, probably because we want super heroes to act rather than debate in our entertainment.

Neither side is blameless in the confrontation that ensues and neither is malicious in their position. One of the things that makes this movie so much more fun than the recent "Batman V. Superman" is that the characters recognize the righteousness that their opposition feels and the awkwardness of the confrontation. Only The Winter Soldier seems undisturbed by having to face down and fight friends. Of course he has not got the same investment in relationships that the other characters have. In one fight sequence, a character accuses another of pulling their punches, and in essence that is what all of them are doing.  No one is trying to destroy their former partners, it is just Bucky Barnes that has the full force of one side directed at him. Everyone else is trying to walk on egg shells (OK, maybe not Black Panther either). As an illustration of the conflicting tones that the film manages to walk a tightrope on, two new characters are brought into the Avengers Universe and end up on opposite sides. Both provide comic relief and still fight with all of their skills and both also know that they don't want to do permanent damage to the opposition. Paul Rudd is charming and a bit star struck as he backs up the Captain. Somehow, Disney has managed to wrestle Spiderman away from Sony's complete control, and the new guy, Tom Holland, has the potential to get that franchise back on track as long as the creatives in this universe can keep control. [There is great hope that they will do so given the final credits crawl.]

With every welcome appearance of another loved character, the audience was responsive but the movie really does come down to the Tony/Steve relationship and confrontation. I know that Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this part because even in the weak sequels he is the compelling feature. He does a nice job selling the idea that there is some vulnerability behind that cynical facade he projects. The absence of Pepper Potts actually makes him a warmer character because he notices how much her absence effects him. He even recognizes that it is his faults that make their relationship a rocky one at times. Chris Evans continues to impress at bringing dimension to what might have been the flattest character in the original source material but one that has become the moral center of this Universe. The fight that is the climax of the film involves a confrontation that we saw early in the first Avengers movie. Captain America and Iron Man are two strong willed individuals who are willing to throw down for their beliefs. The resolution of this fight is tempered by the motivation that one character has for pressing it. No one wants these two to be defeated, but a conflict like this needs an outcome to keep credibility. I found the solution to be very satisfying.

This film is clearly a success. No one will have to offer half-hearted justifications for it like I heard so often for "The Age of Ultron". It is not perfect; I found the underlying plot that motivates the mysterious figure behind some of the events to be murky and sometimes implausible. There are characters that would have been fun to have in the film a bit more organically. I thought the willingness to concede to a group of authorities outside of the team, despite whatever guilt he felt about Ultron, to be out of character for Tony Stark. Once again, I am a little dismayed at the amount of mayhem in large cities is required to keep audiences coming to the cinemaplex.  To counter those minor misgiving, we do get a discussion of the morality of that mayhem, and we have an intriguing new character in Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther. As long as the "team up" movies live up to this standard, and as long as we get some breathing room with well placed and reasonably plotted stand alone films, I will be able to stay with the "Mighty Marvel Marching Society."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

TCM FF: 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone

This was a wonderful program featuring 7 shorts from the start of the Vitaphone era, 1926-1931. I neglected to take notes and write down the names of each of the shorts, if you were there and have that list please share them here. I will try to remember a few of the performers featured in the program.

The Vitaphone process involved recording of sound to synchronize with pictures. The system as described by Ron Hutchinson, from The Vitaphone Project, used 16" discs that were powered by the same motor that drove the film projector. That way the synchronization would be much more effective than other systems had used. Mr. Hutchinson described how there are several hundred missing shorts. Some they have film for but no soundtrack and some they have the discs for but no film. The Project has about 150 complete shorts, so we saw a pretty solid selection of the groups work.

Most of the performers were vaudeville stars and they did their act for 10 minutes on a studio set so the material could be recorded. Since the act was designed to be on a stage in front of a live audience, there are not any optical effects and the staging is very basic. Also, since one of the studios of Vitaphone was in New York, they featured performers from the era that would be fairly specialized. Molly Picon for instance did a Yiddish humor presentation that involved two sets, a drawing room and an alley in a tenement building. That alley was the most elaborate staging I remember seeing. George Burns and Gracie Allen simply did their shtick in a drawing room set. Al Shaw and Sam Lee just stand in the same spot in "The Beau Brummels", and slay the audience with their understated mannerisms.

Baby Rose Marie, the Child Wonder belts out several songs with adult flair and brash confidence. I did not realize until I did some background research that this was the same Rose Marie that I knew from the Dick Van Dyke show. She was a hoot because that voice and charisma coming from a child was just so incongruous as to be shocking. It was a very entertaining few minutes.

There were two or three other performers that also entertained but their styles would probably be lost on most modern audiences. One woman sang in impressions of performers from the time, including Mae West and Fanny Brice. Another couple sang a duet while at a piano and all kinds of insanity takes place around them.

Ron Hutchinson's slide presentation to start the program provided an excellent historical context and was entertaining in it's own right.

When I looked at the Festival Gallery posted on the TCM Festival Web Site, I was surprised to  see that I made it into the portfolio. There is an audience shot of this presentation and there I am enjoying the experience from my seat. So here's a screen shot of that moment for you.

I also got to say Hello to my Facebook friend, blogger Will McKinley right after the program. we didn't speak for long but it's great to have a non-virtual moment with someone you know and admire.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

TCM FF: The Conversation

OK, I'm going to out myself as an old man right now. As Steven Spielberg is to my kids and most of the movie going generation after, Francis Ford Coppola was to my generation. He was the inspiration for my movie mania in the 1970s. He is responsible in whole or part for five Best Picture nominees including three winners in that category. Getting a chance to hear him speak was number one on my list of "must dos" for the Festival. We were not at the front of the line but we were there almost two hours early to insure that we did get in. Mr. Coppola did not disappoint.

There was an elaborate description of the opening scene that reoccurs as the movie plays out. The idea that more is revealed or that the comments being made are interpreted in a different way as we get some more context is an early version of a technique used by later films like "Memento"and "Crash ". That Walter Murch had to be given a title that did not exist before [Sound Designer] because he technically could not work as an editor is a testament to the clash between the old ways that studios worked and the new styles that film makers like Coppola wanted to employ. The innovative use of sound in this film was the start of a specialized field. I wonder how Ben Burtt feels about this and if he would agree.

Gene Hackman is my favorite actor, and this was a terrific part that required him to be very different than in other roles. He is introspective and something of a schlep in his plastic raincoat and black rimmed glasses. He still has the volatility of Popeye Doyle, but it is tempered by a meekness that is surprising. When he tosses away his valise in frustration, that's a moment you expect, but when he turns around to go back and get it, that is not the performance choice that is typical, but it is reflective of the character. His passive-aggressive manner with his girlfriend is another indicator of Harry Caul's tentative ability to connect with others. We know that he is in over his head when he gets bested by a professional rival in a joke, but even more so when he falls into a honeypot that is designed to get access to materials he has held back from the assistant to his contracted employer. Robert Duvall is barely in the movie, in fact I think he is uncredited, but it is nice to see the two of them occupying the same film. 

The timeliness of this kind of surveillance is odd. The movie is more than forty years old but it is still relevant with the privacy invasions that we see today in politics, social media and National Security issues. Harry's paranoia is just a precursor to the kinds of intrusions that all of us are subject to today.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

TCM FF: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

Steve Martin and Carl Reiner collaborated several times in the late 70s and 80s. Some of their films are silly and some are brilliantly realized concepts. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is both. It is an homage to the film noir of the 40s and 50s, with a Saturday Night Live sensibility. They took clips from more than a dozen classic films and mixed them with new material that was specially created for the movie. Martin rocketed to fame as a stand up comedian, and Reiner honed his comedy chops on improve and 50s variety shows. They seem to have been perfectly combined for this movie.
I saw this movie when it opened in May of 1982. I still have the promo button they passed out at preview screenings proclaiming that opening day was National Plaid Day. It remains very funny but the technology for merging older film stock with contemporary materials is much greater today than thirty four years ago. It still looks great but we are spoiled today by the digital wonders that come from progress. My guess is that Zelig and Forrest Gump would also suffer a little by comparison as each uses a similar technique to this film to tell it's story.
Rachel Ward was the "It" girl of the early 80s after starring in "The Thornbirds" on TV. She is the damsel in distress rather than a femme fatale here, which she would be two years later in the neo noir "Against All Odds".  Steve Martin gets to man handle her a couple of times for big laughs in the movie and she was indeed a beautiful woman, although she has no comic touch at all. Reiner himself appears as the butler, and maybe a little bit more, and he hams it up with Martin very effectively. Most of the costars are actually big names from past films who appear for a few brief seconds but are integrated so well into the movie that I hope their families are getting residuals. 
Mr. Reiner was honored after the film with a short assemblage of film clips put together by TCM and a nice introduction by actress/author Illeanna Douglas. She proceeded to try to interview him but Reiner was "On" and would not be contained. The 94 year old actor/writer/director/producer was full of jokes, side track stories and assorted foolishness. He was very entertaining but I was occasionally left wondering if he sometimes just lost track of what he was doing and went to a comfort zone.  The big house at the Chinese Theater was packed and the nearly 1000 of us lucky enough to get in gave him a standing ovation greeting that was very sincere. 
He talked about his days with the Dick Van Dyke show and was clearly quite proud of his accomplished children, including his director son Rob, his psychologist daughter and artist younger son. He shared George Burns ribald comment with the audience as to what sex was like in your 80s, after all they did work together on "Oh God", but he had to make sure there were no children in the audience. The analogy was disgusting and funny as heck.  He appears to be in good health and still very amusing with his improvisational comments during the interview.  It was an afternoon well spent and reminds me that I should be visiting my DVD collection more often, where "The Man with Two Brains" and "All of Me" reconnect him with Steve Martin. There are several other films to post about from Friday and Saturday, but I will have to catch up during the week, it's just too late when we are getting back to do any coherent writing.