Friday, July 15, 2016

Ghostbusters 2016

OK, it's finally here and people can speak about it from an informed point of view rather than a knee-jerk reaction from internet trolls. I loved the original "Ghostbusters", and I had no problem with the idea of a reboot featuring women in the leads. The cast looked promising but I will say I am unfamiliar with the work of Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, but as alums of SNL they could be great or complete busts. The idea of putting together four funny women as a new crew of Supernatural fighters should work. The hate this movie generated however was amazing. The trailer has three times as many dislikes as likes and I've heard it is the most disliked video ever on YouTube. Many people are locked and loaded to hate this film, but I was not one of them.

As it turns out the haters are closer to the truth than are the naively optimistic. It is not something to hate but it is not very good. It seems strange with the talent and money spent putting it together that the film misfires so much. Most of the ways the movie fails have little to do with the cast or the concept but everything to do with the script and the tone. There are good things in the movie but they are passing elements rather than things that grow from the characters or the situations. The most laughs I had were in the end titles and it seems like they were just tossing in material they did not think would work in the film but for me was the stuff that worked the best.

Maybe the biggest problem is that no one will ever be able to reproduce the odd, karmic attitude and timing of Bill Murray in the original. This movie tries very hard to make the characters funny but it just feels flat almost in every scene. The opening sequence, which has none of the featured performers in it, is the best moment of the film. When the titles came up I was excited that the movie was getting started on the right foot. Kristen Wiig is a character so unsure of herself that she denies authorship of a book. Murray on the other hand was so self assured that every time something did not go as planned, you were amused by his reaction. Wiig's Erin Gilbert expects to be mocked and that just does not work for the movie. Melissa McCarthy on the other hand is mostly just progressively loud. When given the chance she can be great. She carried last year's "Spy" on her back very effectively. This performance feels more like one of those numerous comedies of hers that I have avoided in the last few years[Tammy, The Boss, Identity Theft].

In the plot of the movie, political forces get involved and it comes out of no where and it makes absolutely no sense.  Andy Garcia as the Mayor tries to thank and deny the Ghostbusters simultaneously. His annoying assistant seems to pop up every so often to divert the plot from the original point and basically for no reason at all. One of the reasons stuff worked in the original film was it was played in a somewhat serious vein. The Mayors office was interested in election year politics and the EPA guy was a bureaucratic weeny drunk on his own power. Every character the Ghostbusters interact with in this film are unrealistic and unconvincing. From the Department chair who thinks Princeton is not a prestigious enough school to get a recommendation from, to the Dean of the other institution who uses the middle finger as his primary form of communication and the Mayor who is so indifferent, nothing feels real. There are segments that feel cut and pasted into the story, there never is any drive behind the story as it develops. In spite of all the frenetic energy being put into this, I thought it was pretty lifeless.

When the original theme music is used in the film, you can almost convince yourself that there is something worthwhile happening on the screen. When you hear the theme from Fall Out Boy, you will want to cry because it mangles all that was fun in the Ray Parker Jr. original.   There are call backs and cameos throughout the movie. Keep your eyes open for familiar faces, except for Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis (RIP), everyone shows up for a bit and they are fun. It's just not enough to justify seeing the movie.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lambcast: The Towering Inferno

KAMAD joins the Lambcast to discuss a 70s classic, the disaster spectacular "The Towering Inferno".

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Swiss Army Man

Well I can safely say you have never seen anything quite like this. I've watched some strange stuff over the years, including films that I immediately loathed, despite their pretensions at philosophical depth. There have been horror movies that made no sense but I enjoyed them and there have been pieces of work that some have claimed as masterpieces that seemed like total crap to me. "Swiss Army Man" defies any categorization along those lines. It is coherent but ambiguous. There are pretentious elements to it but it never gets so self satisfied as to be annoying. I kept trying to think of comparisons to be made that would help someone decide to see this or not but all of those comparisons are inadequate in a number of ways. For instance, the most obvious hybrid/mash-up description of the film is that it is a cross between "Cast Away" and "Weekend at Bernies". That combination is technically on the nose but misses so much of what this film seems to be about that you would be lost using it as a compass.

Plot is not really the point of the film, it is really a long mediation on loneliness that uses a desert island scenario to kickstart our thinking on what the feeling of isolation really does to us. Along the way though, we are given plenty to laugh at and be horrified by. There are moments in this movie that are so over the top sincere that you wonder that anyone could take it seriously, and then you find yourself being caught up in one of those moments and in spite of your better judgement, going along with it. Many of you will have heard of this film being referred to as the "farting corpse" movie. I really think that short hand description will keep plenty of people who might find this interesting from coming out to see it. Again, while technically accurate, it is misleading.

As I sat watching the movie I also tried to figure out where it was going. I thought I had it nailed when I remembered an unusual episode of the "Twilight Zone",  An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It is actually a French Short film that Rod Sterling obtained for one time use. I was it in high school for an English class I was taking, and today, I kept thinking, that "Swiss Army Man" was an update of the concept; it isn't. They do have elements in common but the psychological/supernatural points that they share turned out to be minimal. I also thought I might be seeing a "Wizard of Oz" pay off, that turned out to be wrong as well. As I said earlier, this movie defies most conventional forms of description, and those that it doesn't, will result in a lack of understanding of the film. 

Weird, is not necessarily a hindrance to a movie but it is not a magic charm to make a movie good. As weird as this film is, I have a hard time putting my finger on the things that made it worthwhile to me. Paul Dano is an actor that I have seen heavily criticized on some other blogs. Apparently he irritates a number of people. I thought he was very sincere and emotionally connected in this film. There are obvious places where there could be histrionic techniques used to try and make his character either sympathetic or important. He relied on more natural tools and expressions to pull us in. Daniel Radcliffe appears to be taking plenty of risks with his career. This is maybe the biggest and he succeeds in making a somewhat animated corpse a character that we will care about and believe it or not, relate to. 

This film will not be for everyone. I recorded a Lambcast the other day, and one of the other participants, J.D. was making the point that if movies like this one are not supported by film audiences who protest the lack of imagination in Hollywood, they should shut the hell up. I'm not one of those people, although I have groused about some of the sameness end endlessly repeated sequels and plot lines of film fare. I also go out of my way when possible to see films that are clearly different. Over the years I have been irritated by some of those "unique" films. "The Tree of Life", "Black Swan" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" jump immediately into mind and give me a headache remembering the painful experience. However, there are plenty of other films that I've sought out, things like "Sing Street" or "Win-Win" or "City Island" which make a gamble of the atypical so worthwhile.  "Swiss Army Man" falls into the later category. It was only playing on one screen in my neck of the woods, and only one screening a day, at 10:30 in the morning, but if you are bored with most of the films you are seeing this summer, this will take you out of that rut.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

As a character, Tarzan has been around for more than a hundred years. He is nearly as old as another literary creation of the era, Sherlock Holmes. It was inevitable I suppose that with the new digital technology at their fingertips, someone was going to do a new version of the Tarzan story. Robert Downey Jr. gets to be Ironman and Sherlock Holmes, but the new millennium and the nature of the character probably suggest that the new Tarzan be a different face, an actor who is competent but not well established as a star.  Enter Alexander Skarsgård, a handsome man with solid credits on high quality television programs and some supporting parts in other films. This is his chance to step up and become a star, if he can manage to sell us on the idea that he is an enlightened British Lord who started his life as an adopted member of a troop of Great Apes. It's a tall order to fill but he manages to do a credible job for a couple of reasons. First of all, Tarzan is not a character known for eloquence. He is not unsophisticated because as Lord Greystoke, he is a member of the House of Lords, but as the child of a savage world without humans for the most part, he has learned to communicate in subtle, non-verbal ways. Skarsgård, may have the fewest lines of the four major characters in the film, but it is not really noticeable because he says so much with his actions. Second, he is a close doppelganger for the young version of Christopher Lambert, who made his debut on the international film stage in the same character vehicle.

In a way, his resemblance to Lambert connects the two films that were made 32 years apart. Had "Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" been a bigger success, this could easily have been the follow up film. A large section of the 1984 film, was devoted to the origin story of Tarzan. This film pays homage to that story but does not make it the focal point of the film. The structure of "The Legend of Tarzan" is mostly a straightforward narrative with occasional flashback sequences to provide exposition and context. It's a rather effective way of including the origin story without belaboring it. As a result, this movie feels fairly fresh and works as a stand alone episode in the story of our jungle pulp hero. The difference in tone is important. Unlike the Johnny Weissmuller films, which are  somewhat campy adventure stories, the Greystoke film of 84 sought to probe more deeply into what distinguishes man from beast. It had a solemn message about the savagery of colonial times but also about the duality of Lord Greystoke/Tarzan. This film touches ever so briefly on the later and spends most of it's time on the former. The plot concerns the exploitation of Africa bu European powers that are willing to use unscrupulous methods to achieve their objectives. Naturally, Tarzan stands in the way. Some of the 50s and 60s version of the Tarzan tale told the same kind of story.  "The Legend of Tarzan" takes the colonial period in Africa and uses it much like a James Bond thriller, with a plot to enslave a whole country by an evil figure being thwarted by our hero, while at the same time he saves the woman he loves. It's pretty good stuff but not very deep.

The three other main characters also bring something to the table that make this version of the legend even more successful. Quinton Taratino's favorite German actor of the last decade, is cast in another villainous role. After "Inglorious Basterds", he has been the heavy in a half dozen films. Most recently Christoph Waltz was the featured antagonist of James Bond in SPECTRE.  I'm fine with him collecting a paycheck but I hope he is able to expand his resume a little more. In this movie he is Leon Rom, an envoy of the King of Belgium, tasked with gaining access to the riches of the Congo, and using a plot against Lord Greystoke to do so. His scenes with Tarzan's mate when she is his prisoner, have a suitably creepy tone to them. There is one good moment where his eyes and voice express admiration for Jane, and for a moment he feels like a human and not just a cardboard bad guy, although he plays that cliched role well. Margot Robbie seems to have come out of nowhere in the last couple of years and is on the verge of exploding into mega stardom, if she can act as well as she looks a part. She will soon be Harley Quinn in a series of D.C. comic book movies and that will add fuel to the fire of her career.In this film she was solid. There was a great degree of sexual chemistry between her and Skarsgård. Tarzan and Jane look and sound like a couple who are in love and actually care about one another. Each is given an opportunity to show the desire they have for their partner in a non-lascivious way. She also gets some action scenes and as the dialogue intentionally lampoons, she is not just a damsel in distress.

The final major star of the film is somewhat surprising. What Samuel L. Jackson is doing in this film is not entirely clear. A black Doctor, as an envoy from the government of the United States personally selected by President Benjamin Harrison, he is an anachronism that defies story telling with one exception, he brings his personality to the movie. Jackson is a frequent spark plug for a moment of humor or dramatic intervention in the film. Amazingly enough, he manages to do this without once using the word that he is the foremost practitioner of in movie dialogue. It is frequently said that Samuel L. Jackson simply plays Samuel L. Jackson when he is cast, but I see differences in his tone and personality from film to film that do make his characters more distinctive. Just as in "The Hateful Eight", he is a Civil War veteran in this movie. Major Marcus Warren was a malevolent and hateful character, but George Washington Williams is sad and hopeful. The way he handles his six guns in this movie are completely different that the Tarantino chamber piece from last Christmas. The tone here is light and fun and he seems to care for humanity rather than despise it. I think you have to be a pretty good actor to sell the misanthrope of last year and the heroic side kick in this picture. Jackson does so and the movie benefits as a result. 

The look of the film is accomplished, blending CGI jungles and mountains with real backgrounds to effectively give the movie a sense of scope. Director David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potter films, is accomplished at moving exposition along with the action. That ability serves him well with this picture. While I might still prefer the Rick Baker ape make-up and costumes, the CGI animals in this film are impressive and make the impossible possible on film. I could have used more practical vine swinging, the CGI in these sequences draws attention to itself, but most modern audiences will accept it easily. 

I really wanted this film to be good, but after an early trailer, I thought it might end up as a special effects laden mess. I was pleasantly surprised and quite pleased with the results. I was out of town last week when it opened and I tried not to read anything about it. I did hear a few positive words from some media sources but they only raised my fear threshold. As it turns out, "The Legend of Tarzan" is a respectable addition to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs on film and a mid summer treat that I would encourage anyone to see, but especially those who like the pulp characters of the past and want to see them live on to the future.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

Do you have a dog? Is there a cat sitting in your lap right now? Have you ever made bubble noises to a fish? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, than you will enjoy this film that speculates on how the other side of people pet relationships might feel about the connection. Ultimately, this movie is more for kids than I thought it would originally be, but it does pick out several of the things that we animal lovers believe about our friends and uses those to make us smile, laugh and worry.

I'm going to start with a cautious comparison here. The pets featured in this movie are much like the Toys featured in the Toy Story films. There is a major focus on how the humans relate to the subject of the film, and then there is a plot element about how the subject relates to other similar characters. Finally, there is a plot concerning the separation of the subject from it's human owner. Those are the basics of the story in the films I mentioned. The Toy Story films though, manage to build more heart and drama into their telling of the tale. Illumination Studio has created a nice design, and built in a number of gags to entertain us, but they miss the elusive spark that manages to make the Pixar films work so memorably [ at least most of the time].  This is a solid entertainment for certain, but it is not a classic that will be treasured by audiences down through the years.

We pet owners who have given voice to our furry and feathered and scaled pals over the years, both inside our heads and out loud, will have an easy time relating to this movie. Anthropomorphic conversations and interpretations of animal behavior are one of the delights in pet ownership. We get to project our own desires for the relationship onto the pet and there is basically no way we can be wrong. When an outcome is not as we predicted or wanted, we will come up with an internalized excuse and then put it in the mouth of our buddies. If that sounds like you, this movie will have a lot going for it. The main problem is that the humans disappear after the opening and only the animals remain. Instead of a thoughtful exploration of the connection that humans and pets make with one another, as last years Inside/Out did with families and our own feelings, we get an extended Road Runner cartoon. The plot is funny and manic and very entertaining, but it leaves all the nuance on the table.

Max is the star of the movie. He is a terrier voiced by Louie C.K., for the most part without any snark. When Duke, a oversized shaggy stray is interjected into his life, Max changes his demeanor in some ways and it looks like there will be an interesting story about the differences between animal and human nature to follow. What happens instead is that Max and Duke get thrown together in a buddy road comedy with a variety of complications tossed in. Both Max and Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, seem like they are amiable dogs that have to resolve some differences. Those differences become mostly irrelevant when they are both pursued by animal and human antagonists, at which point, their behavior is basically interchangeable.

Kevin Hart provides the voice for a demented bunny and this is his third movie role this year and ninth in the last three years. The danger of over-exposure here is high, but since it is an animated character and the antics never have any sense of reality to them, his over the top manner is not really a problem for the movie. Albert Brooks is back in an animated film that is competing with his other animated film, "Finding Dory" this weekend. While not as egregious as last year's "Minions",  this movie does make repeated use of music cues from other films for the sake of getting the audience to connect emotionally with the story, rather than building a solid plot line. The one spot where it works effectively though, is in the sausage dream that the two main characters share, a better use of "We Go Together" from "Grease" cannot be imagined.

If you enjoy kids movies on their own, this is a peach of a film. If you are expecting something deeper, you may be disappointed but you will still be entertained. Don't let the fact that there is a "Minions" cartoon in front of this discourage you. "The Secret Life of Pets" may not rise to the level of "Despicable Me" but it sure as heck does not sink to the banality of that last film with the banana colored characters in overalls. If you have kids, definitely take them, if you are an adult, you can put this one off for a bit and not feel like you have been denied an important film, just like you skipped a candy bar that you would enjoy more at a later time.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Obligatory July 4th Post on JAWS

Don't let the title fool you, it is not just an obligation it is a pleasure to see and write about the greatest adventure movie of the second half of the last century [and so far, the first Sixteen years of the current one.]

No film has been covered as in depth on this blog site as the original Steven Spielberg classic. If you go back a year to the 40th anniversary, you will see that I saw the movie on the big screen four times in 10 days and did a different post on each one of those visits. You will also be able to find an extensive collection of posts at the following: Jaws Week.

It is late however, and I have some obligations in the next few hours so I will keep this years comments short.

First, I think this may be the first time I saw the movie at the Egyptian Theater, a spot that has become my go to cinema for classic films, including several events each year at the TCM Classic Movie Film Festival. The popcorn is good, the butter flavor rich and they have Coke Zero. Oh yeah, they also have the coolest old school design on the Boulevard.

In introducing the program and telling everyone the rules of conduct, our host tonight asked how many people were seeing the movie for the first time. I was flabbergasted to see nearly a third of the packed house raise their hands. While it surprised this veteran of at least a hundred trips to Amity over the years, it also created a great expectation on my part. I had to ask myself if the film would still work on a fresh audience that is jaded by the speed and CGI of today's films. I can safely report that when Ben Gardner makes his final appearance in the movie, the screams were loud and people again levitated out of their seats.

When the shark first shows up in profile, there is another jump, and everyone still nervously laughs at Roy Scheider's ad-libbed classic line. There are two more great scares, a dozen moments of levity that all break the tension in glorious ways and you can tell they were all working tonight. Finally, there was a loud outburst of cheers and applause when the hero solves the problem of the shark in a most satisfying conclusion.

As always, I picked up a couple more tidbits of information during the screening. In the hundred times I've seen the movie, this was the first time I noticed the timeline continuity error in the police report for Chrissy's death and the date of the attack on Alex Kitner. Why I had not worried about it before is beyond me, but I think I'd go crazy if I worried about all those kinds of things. A movie is made up of a million moving parts and sometimes the cog in one section is out of synch with the gears in another section.

Something that bothers me a little more because it seems like it should be obvious. At dinner, when Quint is telling the story of the Indianapolis, I suddenly realize that he and Hooper have finished their meals and that Brody hasn't even touched his food. It may be the framing on the big screen that makes this more noticeable, or maybe because Shaw is so compelling when he does the monologue, you don't really take tour eyes off him much. So the Chief has a queasy stomach on the ocean with the more experienced sailors. That's one more small detail that is so brilliant in making these characters real and representative of their types in the story.

I also think that different prints or sound systems may emphasize some parts of the music or the dialogue a bit more from one screening location to another. After forty years, it's great to say the movie still succeeds and there are still small moments to discover.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Centennial Birthday Screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) In Honor of Olivia de Havilland

It has already been said and you can find the page link above, this is my favorite movie. Any time you get a chance to see your favorite movie on the big screen, you should jump at it. Tomorrow night will be Amanda's turn and I will get to see my second favorite movie the day after the first. This is a fortuitous set of circumstances as we get ready to celebrate the Independence Day weekend. I only wish we could have seen my wife's favorite (The Right Stuff) last night. It would have been perfect.

 Olivia de Havilland turns 100 on July 1, and is the last remaining major female star of the Golden Age of Hollywood. If I were not on the road, I would return to the Egyptian on Saturday for the American Cinematique presentation of "Gone with the Wind". Havilland is the last surviving cast member of one of the greatest American films ever and whether you like it or not, it is a cultural milestone.

The word "luminous" might very well have been invented to describe her presence on the screen in the films she made with Errol Flynn. Her face radiated life and positive energy and she was a truly beautiful woman. No wonder that both Guy of Gisborne and Robin of Locksley fell in love with her almost at first sight.

Oh, by the way she is also a spectacular actress. Her Melanie in GWTW may be the role she is forever remembered for but but watch her on the screen in this moment of nobility in Robin Hood, and you will be moved by her words as well as her looks.

Imagine how the world has changed in the span of her lifetime. She was in her early twenties when "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was made, that was before World War Two, in the Depths of the Depression. Jet aircraft did not exist, trips to the moon were the stuff of fiction, special effects consisted of paintings on glass and stuntmen with padding being shot with dull arrows to achieve the desired effect. She won two Academy Awards, was nominated five times and starred with Errol Flynn in eight movies in a six year period.

Happy Birthday Lady Marian , from one of the Merry Men of Sherwood.