Sunday, February 26, 2017

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

Day two promised to be a long one. There are five films left and none of them is a crisp ninety minutes. Even the two that manage to come in under two hours are deliberately paced. Shane, who has been our regular host for a couple of years now, was out of town but AMC employee Johnny was an enthusiastic substitute and ran the trivia with efficiency. Of course maybe I say that because we cleaned up with three movie poster prizes and some Batman Lego pieces.  I'd seen all of the films already, so this will mostly be a quick recap and there are links back to my original comments in each title and picture below.

As an exploration in anthropology, this was a revelation to me. I'd not expected myself to have a lot of empathy for drug dealers but the way this story unfolds gives us a lot more to connect with. The three part structure of the film is not subtle but it does choose the three stops in Chiron's life that seem to be most critical in our understanding of him. As much praised as the first chapter was, I found the last chapter with the regretful visit with his mother and the reunion with his somewhat reformed school buddy Kevin, to be most interesting this time out. The performances are very solid in this adult world.

LION was pretty critical of this film when I first saw it. The structure is so bifurcated that it seems like two different pictures. On this viewing I was more able to appreciate the connection between the two and give the second section a little more credit. Inevitably, it is the miraculous story of Saroo's use of Google Earth to reconnect with his original family which is the heart of the film. Little boy lost is
found, but the story has some sad twists to it. Once again I cried at the last ten minutes of the movie as our hero reconciles his two lives and we discover some resilience in his mothers as well. I did not give Nicole Kidman much credit before but as I watched the movie again, my appreciation for her work was elevated. Dev Patel is a good actor, and supporting actor is the right category for him even though he is the first listed star of the film.

Hacksaw + Ridge
This movie is the closest thing to a sure thing for me. I am eternally grateful to our fathers and grandfathers for the sacrifices they made in two world wars. The exceptionalism of Desmond Doss is a perfect illustration of the diversity of Americans who stood up to tyranny in all kinds of ways. I recently listened to a Lambcast where one blogger complained about this movie and the prayer that Doss made on that day of his heroism. She found it cliched and annoying, she also asked about the triage issue. Doss acted as a fellow soldier would at times rather than just as a medic. I found it humbling and inspiring. The opening act in the film should get some credit as well, Hugo Weaving was not nominated but he was very good as the battle embittered father of Doss, and an indirect inspiration for the choices he made.

Arrival movie about communication is also a thoughtful puzzle for us to solve. This second viewing allowed me to percieve scenes in a way that I could not have expected in the first screening. There are secrets revealed at the end of the movie which force us to rethink much of what is going on. Since there is a time shifting component to the process, it also introduces some of those pesky conundrums that make our brains hurt to much if we get carried away trying to work them all out. I can confidently say that the biggest Oscar snub this year was Amy Adams, who carries this movie in almost every frame and who not only deserved to be nominated but also to win. The production design her also deserves to be singled out, it sells the concepts in great ways, both the fantastic and the mundane.

Hidden Figures
My wife has been sick the last two days and she toughed it out as long as she could but this film was starting at 8:30 and she was spent, so we left before we got to re-watch this fine entertainment.  I think this is a popular choice to include in the categories that it was nominated in, but I will be surprised if it wins in any of them. While the story and the themes are important, and the film was entertaining, the film making did not seem extraordinary. This is an excellent film that deserved to be included but it is not quite in the same class as some of the other contenders. A second viewing changed my mind a little about Manchester By the Sea" and "Lion", maybe this one would have gone up in my mind as well.

Monday, February 20, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated/Live Action

Blind Vaysha

The very distinctive animation here made this less appealing but still interesting. There is a YouTube Version available, I have posted it here for you.

Borrowed Time

A morbid but touching western theme for a Pixar short. There are some gruesome elements so it's not really for kids. I liked it quite well but it ends up being pretty depressing. Below is the trailer.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes

If I thought "Borrowed Time" was depressing, I was slapped by reality with this offereing. The longest animated short of the evening. It centers on a friendship with a self destructive person, and it is not a pretty story. It is however excellently animated. Another trailer below.


The most pleasant surprise of the collection. This looks like a rotoscoped film and it has a nice design that is different from most of the other films here. This is another one where I found a complete version on line and you will find it next.


The last nominated short is also Pixar. I think it played with "Finding Dory" so it should be familiar to most of you. The computer animation is lush and photo real while still maintaining a  sense that it is animated. No words, just the usual high class story telling from the premire animation group working today. It is below.

Live Action Shorts

Enemies Within

A French Short that basically consists of an interrogation of an Algerian man applying for French Citizenship. You never know which one of the participants to sympathize with, but the experience is insightful.

Le Femme et le TGV

A Swiss film about the odd connection between an older woman and the high speed train she greets twice a day. This was an interesting and nicely complete story.

Silent Nights

Another fairly complete story with several highs and lows. The power of love and hate come together in two people from very different worlds. It is a painful but sweet experience for each.


A Hungarian film about a school choir. I think it was my favorite because it is subversive in a very nice way. Kids have feelings and adults should stop worrying about always getting their way.


The shortest of the shorts, Timecode is a winner of the Special Distinction Award at Cannes. It is also odd and entertaining and ultimately charming.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 1

So we put on our lanyards and started off another year of the AMC Best Picture Showcase at 10:00 am on Saturday Morning. Our host for another year was Shane, a long time employee at the AMC Santa Anita 16. He greeted us and set up the schedule for the day. There are four films on this weeks menu, next week there will be five. I still haven't found anyone willing to do the 24 hour marathon with me. Oh Well, maybe next year. I've already seen all the films so this is a recap. The titles and pictures will link you to my original comments.

Manchester By the Sea

A movie that has improved in my esteem with a second viewing. There was nothing wrong with it the first time out, it was just so overwhelmingly tough to view that some of the nuances that make it a great film slipped by. As hard as it is to re-experience, it is rewarding in additional ways. The sadness hangs like a pall over almost everything, but there are moments of humor throughout, which help make the story feel completely human. Casey Affleck is almost certainly going to win the Award for his acting performance here. Completely deserved as he manages the difficult task of portraying a man paralyzed by grief and guilt, who must find at least a little room in his life for the family he has remaining.


I still have the same issues with this movie that I first had on viewing it. This is a very stage-bound set of dialogue, performed wonderfully by the cast, but still  a two set scene. Director Denzel Washington has taken the story as far as he can to make it feel more like a movie, but in spite of some trash trucks, Pittsburgh neighborhoods and a scene at a public building with some old murals, it still comes down to actors standing around talking to each other in the backyard or kitchen. If you don't know baseball, half the metaphors in this film will leave you uncertain as to what the character of Troy Maxson is talking about. I understood, but the poetry of the diamond sounds too conspicuously well written. 

Hell or High Water
This is a movie that has grown on me more every time I have seen it. If there is a chance for an Oscar upset, this is the movie I would be happiest to see take the prize. There are four really good performances at the heart of this film, and a half dozen smaller roles that add so much character to the movie. Once again I was impressed with the work of Ben Foster as the older of two brothers, who is not as smart as his younger sibling, but has the gumption and fierceness to push their plan of economic justice to fruition. The ambiguity of the ending is perfect, it feels like a film from my youth, in the glorius days of the last golden age of Hollywood, the 1970s.

La La Land

This exuberant update of the Hollywood musical, stole my heart when I first saw it. On second viewing, the few lapses and pacing issues were more apparent, but they bothered me only slightly. I finally downloaded the digital version of the soundtrack to my device and I expect to be listening t it all week. The two lead performances are even better when you have adjusted to the musicals style. This is the front runner for good reasons. I still expect it to be victorious,  although that sense of inevitability may detract a bit from the current experience.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Lamb Devours the Oscars: Sound Editing

Here is a link to my second contribution to the LAMB project for this Oscar period. Click and enjoy.

50 Shades of John Wick

Movie blogging is an act of self disclosure. You tell the world what your thoughts are, what your feelings might be and you make yourself subject to all types of evaluation by anyone who chooses to read your work. This post will probably reveal more about me than is prudent. I basically spent the afternoon watching two pieces of pornography. They each have a different canvas that they are painting on, but both are designed to get you off in a way that you would probably not be proud discussing with your mother.

First of all, each of these movies in a second installment of a recent "franchise". "Fifty Shades Darker" is the visualization on the mommy porn phenomena that seemed to sweep the country three or four years ago. The books have been widely criticized as poorly written fan fiction. I can't remember if I read the first book or not, which tells you a bit about how impressive it was. I can say that although the first film was no piece of art, it is not nearly the travesty of cinema that many make it out to be. "Fifty Shades of Grey" supposedly left us with a cliffhanger ending, but the new film dispenses with the conflict that was so meant to be traumatic at the conclusion of the first movie. Anastasia and Christian get over their tiff within minutes, and she is once more anxious to be his plaything.

The second chapter of "John Wick" starts off with an immediate action sequence that is meant to be a continuation to some degree of the revenge plot in the first movie.  Just as with the Sex based romance, the initial story end abruptly and a new story begins. This time Wick, or "The Boogeyman" as he is known in the underworld, gets dragged back to his former profession, unwillingly, to make good on a personal debt. The code of ethics in this fantasy criminal world excuses all sorts of unpleasant behavior, but one of the two rules that they live by is that a marker must be made good. [We'll discuss the other rule a bit later.] So Keanu Reeves is back in action, set to kill out of professional obligation this time rather than revenge [at least immediately]

Both of these movies live in a fantasy world where wealth and privilege are taken for granted. Christian's red room full of BDSM equipment is neatly shelved and apparently dusted by a chipper housekeeper who knows what a pervert he really is. John has his basement floor vault, while buried under a messy concrete pile, it is contained in a trunk with a neat slot for every gun, passport, and gold coin of his profession. Both of them also have dog collars but they use them very differently thank goodness. As part of the foreplay in both of these pieces of pornography, there are long sections devoted to dressing the participants correctly. Anastasia gets a corset, garter belt, stockings and a ball gown. John has two custom suits made which have lightweight armor between the lining and the cut of the suit. He has one made for day wear and one for the evenings.

The sex toys in "Fifty Shades Darker" are shown to us first. We are treated to a brief expository discussion of ben wa  balls and nipple clamps. Since this is a theatrically released film we a spared a close up of the balls being inserted and later removed, although it is acted out for us in both cases. A leg yoke is introduced and then visually demonstrated for us so we do get a money shot with that. With John Wick, we see him select, fetishize and dress himself with a number of weapons. Much like might happen with food porn, we are lead through this process by an expert. Referred to as the "sommelier ", he describes each weapon in detail and highlights the characteristics that make it special. In the action films of the 80s, Arnold or Sly might spend two minutes of  montage getting ready for action by arming themselves. John Wick is a connoisseur of  violence so his prep time takes almost four times as long. Ultimately, both films are trying to build our anticipation for the use of the selected devices. In Fifty Shades, those sequences are relatively brief and only slightly erotic. In Chapter Two of John Wick, the payoff is long, varied and intensely satisfying. [Do you see what I mean by these posts being so revealing about the author?]

Apparently another fantasy of these two different porn worlds is "the Party". When you are a billionaire sadist with very rich parents, it's possible to have a masked charity ball one night, and then a few days later throw a birthday party for your boy with a couple hundred of your closest friends attending. In the criminal underground fantasy, crime families meet at a coronation of sorts that is designed to officially crown the heir to a criminal nation. Such an event would include a pretentious rock act caterwauling while overdressed stereotypes dance to the music.  A second coronation must be held in a museum filled with renaissance versions of Greek figures in one room and a fun house of mirrors disguised as an art exhibit at the end of the hall. The trappings of both the elite rich and the criminal rich are not that far apart, except that their tastes differ slightly.

So having set up the fact that the movies are both about titillation, one concerning sex and the other violence, the question remains, do they achieve their objectives?

"Fifty Shades Darker" is more bold in it's confrontation of the sex hangups of the title character than it's predecessor was. The implied use of the tools of the trade is more frequently explicit , and the foreplay was the better part of the sex. The disrobing part of the movie is usually where things turn a little dull. The two leads are attractive enough but the simulated sex rarely feels passionate in spite of all the writhing and moaning. When the conflicts between the two are so rapidly dispensed with so that another scene featuring them rolling around naked on sheets with incredibly high thread counts, the movie just feels like a slog through a series of sex dioramas.

At least John Wick gets it right, and from the very beginning. If you are an action fan and muscle cars turn you on, the opening of Chapter Two is great. We don't really see that it is John Wick driving the Chevelle SS that is being used like a pair of nun-chucks on some bad guys, but we know it is him. When he recovers his beloved Mustang, it too becomes a weapon against an overwhelming number of foes in cars, on motorcycles and on the ground. The payoff is satisfying and makes you yearn for another evening with your mystery date. Wick kills more people in this movie than died in that battle scene in "Hacksaw Ridge".  It is done so stylishly as well. There are multiple martial arts killings, plenty of stabbing and slashing, and of course for an action movie, the plain vanilla sex of gun shots, repeated incessantly.  I thought it was a very nice touch in the penultimate climax of the film, all of the henchmen lined up to be killed by Wick were in nice matching white dinner jackets. The better to see the spaltter as each money shot is delivered.

I don't think it gives anything away to note that both series have third films planned. There is a hoe hum denouement, as two side characters appear to be set up for complex machinations in the final chapter of the Mommy porn. Maybe if you were interested in these films for the plot, you should stick to the books. There is just not much energy here. John Wick Chapter Two's conclusion, sets up a clear story to anticipate with a promise of even more violence than we have had in the first two films [as hard as that is to believe]. There is a slow burn energy as the film ends creating a desire to watch what comes next. I know that "Fifty Shades Freed" is due a year from now, I hope that "John Wick Chapter Three" is not far behind it. Another hybrid review would be fun to write, and maybe next time I can say it was the sex rather than the violence that did it for me. This Valentine's week, I'm afraid I enjoyed the fifty shades of red splattered on the screen much more than the heaving bosom of Christian Grey. See, I've said too much.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie

Before you read this post, you must first say the secret password...

If you answered correctly, you already know how funny this movie is. I can't give away the jokes, let me just say that if you thought the opening credits of last year's "Deadpool" were amusing, be prepared for several guffaws before the movie really starts here. Director McKay and the team of writers came up with the right mocking attitude for the film. Kids may sometimes not understand the jokes, but there is plenty of eye candy to keep them happy. Adults on the other hand will laugh out loud at the satire directed at almost all superhero film tropes, but especially those associated with the Batman movies.

Many of us who find the constant angst and introspection of comic book characters to be emphasized a bit much in the last ten years, will enjoy the takedown performed by this movie. Although it is an echo of some of the same themes as mentioned in the LEGO Movie  , the story here is far different and the emphasis is on wild visuals that will keep you engaged the whole time that the movie is rolling. Will Arnett returns as the voice of LEGO Batman, and his gruff tone, sometimes whispered asides and general self inflating attitude make this a Batman far different from any we have seen before.

There are movie fans who are dismissive of fan service references in movies. They disapprove of the Easter Eggs that fanboys would jones over. This movie is a plateful of scrambled eggs, with a moment from Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy dropped in right beside a campy reference to the Batman of the 1960s television series. Imagine the Dark Knight battling a shark with repellent from  his utility belt and you will get the idea. Poison Ivy kills a half dozen penguins flying on a bombing mission when she accidentally kisses them. Moments from "Batman and Robin" live next door to "Batman vs. Superman". The people who micromanage the fun out of the DC Universe films need to watch this movie and maybe let some of the creative forces that were contributors here could be turned loose on the Justice League or future films from the DCU. The writers here seem to get that there should be some fun in the characters they are bringing to life.

Just as three years ago, the look of this LEGO movie is amazing. A combination of computer generated blocks and LEGO sized characters come to life in some great ways. The theme of creativity is not deeply explored in this movie as it was in the previous LEGO film, but that does not mean that the film making has lost it's creative edge. The production design and color palate of this movie are cartoon/toy exploding sugar treats for the eyes. When you hear Arnett's sardonic comments in contrast to the chipper immature Micael Cera as Dick Grayson, you just half to laugh. It is another insider joke that Alfred is voiced by Ralph Fiennes, while Lord Voldemort, who does appear in this movie, is voiced by someone else. Real Batman fans will love the casting of Billy Dee Williams as the voice of Two Face.

The original songs in the film are also very amusing. None of them are as catchy as "Everything is Awesome", but they contain just as many jokes and are integrated into the film really well. The source music from other films is also used at the right time and if you appreciate Superman, you will be glad to know we get the John Williams score music in a couple of places. The Batman Theme from the 60s TV show has been mocked so much in the last fifty years that you might have thought all humor had been milked from it already. You would be wrong and Will Arnett proves that. There are also three or four film clips in the movie taht are not animated and will delight you for the clever way they are used.

All in all, this is a really great movie and a fine way to launch the quality films of the year. We can now move aside the remnants of 2016 films and the forgettable January fodder that fills in the spaces between the awards contenders. Here is a movie that will certainly be well thought of all year long. Let's just hope that the travesty that occurred regarding it's predecessor and the Academy does not repeat itself.  I can't wait to go back and see this again. No doubt there are big chunks of humor buried in the dense backgrounds of every scene that will deserve to be discovered and enjoyed, while all the time we get to relish the stuff we loved the first time through.

Robocop: Miguel Ferrer Remembered With Dr. Peter Weller

In the last few years, we have lost a number of terrific actors that were the basis of our movie obsessions in the first place. 2016 , whether accurately or not, was seen as being particularly brutal. We might have hoped for a respite from bad news but in January, character actor Miguel Ferrer left us. He was just shy of being sixty two, and coincidentally, almost half his life ago, he made an amazing contribution to one of the greatest films of the 1980s. It is the 30th Anniversary of "Robocop", a movie that brought Mr, Ferrer to greater audience awareness and set the stage for characters that he would play for the rest of his career.

Last night, the American Cinematheque arranged a screening of the film and provided two wonderful guests to speak about the movie and their colleague. Peter Weller, Robocop himself, was present as was principle screenwriter Ed Neumeier. Weller was quite clear that he was mostly done talking about the film after an extensive promotional tour ten years ago for a box set release of the film and a 25th Anniversary salute he participated in five years ago. It was the cause of acknowledging his friend Miguel Ferrer that brought him out on this evening, and he along with Mr. Neumeier focused on the passion of the film making rather than all the geek related issues that he has talked about and which have been covered in other places for years.

Dr. Weller (he has a PhD in Renaissance Art from UCLA), showed his spirit from the start of the program. The Q and A was scheduled for after the screening, but when the dialogue track of the film was not coming through the sound system, he was the one who jumped up and notified the management. He and Neumeier  then did an impromptu fifteen minutes while the technical issue was being fixed. At one point he jokingly incited the audience to riot because of the snafu. Once the sound issue was resolved he took a seat (just two seats down in front of me) and watched the film with the rest of us. When he returned to the proscenium after the film, he told us that it was not his usual custom to watch the movie over and over, but that his wife had left him there and taken the car, so he thought it would be appropriate to watch so he could once again recognize the elements that Miguel Ferrer brought to the movie. He noted how Bob Morton, Ferrer's character, was both irritating and admirable. He had repulsive characteristics but also personality quirks and an attitude about Robocop, that made everyone love the movie so much more. His performance is a spark plug in the first half of the film. He is not a heroic character, but rather the satirical version of the yuppie climber in the corporate world of the times. Everyone in the theater practically cheered when Morton, looking at Robocop and seen from his perspective, shakes his finger and tells Robo, "You are going to be a bad mother****er."

Weller and Neumeier were also effusive in praise of the director of the movie Paul Verhoven. While the script was done and the concept set, Verhoeven infused the story with the biting satire it is remembered for. The energy and tension of Robocop's first scenes in the police station and laboratory were due to his design of the camera movements and lighting. As a director himself, Weller said he could now relate to the way Verhoeven operated in what they called 7th gear. The whole crew would be amped up and tuned in and working in synchronized speed to get the next shot and keep the process moving. You could hear the passion in Weller's voice on several of the subjects that came up, but he first reached this level of emotion when praising the director who's fortunate and wise hands the project fell into.
Dr. Peter Weller Center, Screenwriter Ed Neumeier on the right

Neumeier was quite gracious in giving credit to the director as well but also pointing out how the actors make the words mean something more than the writer might ever have imagined. He gave Kurtwood Smith, the actor who played villain Clarence Boddicker, credit for the improvised "Guns, Guns, Guns" line that made his negotiation scene so much funnier and intense than it might otherwise have been. He also noted that Weller is the one who came up with the Robocop line to his wounded partner Lewis, "They'll fix you. They fix everything." A line that allowed closure of that part of the story with a sense of hope for the audience, but also a sense of sorry at the costs.

The subject of the awkwardness of acting came up in response to an audience question that I could not quite make out, but it was one of the more eloquent moments of Weller's conversation with us. He described the degree of commitment and courage it takes to really look at a fellow actor at a close distance and connect with them on camera. In his view, you need to be fearlessly real to be able to covey the emotions that a character might be feeling. He completely won me over with the example he chose to illustrate that point. He describe how Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland had to have that sort of intensity in front of a camera merely inches from one another's face in the balcony scene in Robin Hood. Mr. Weller, excuse me, Dr. Weller, you are a man after my own heart. I may have to find a higher place on my mental shelf for every word you said as a result of that illustration. Thank you.

One more point to show how engaged and enthusiastic Weller was last night. An audience member asked him to take a question from a little boy who was at the screening. Weller rightfully pointed out when the boy shared that his age was nine, that he should not have even been allowed in the theater, but he joked it away and took the question. It was the kind of question you might expect a nine year old to ask, "How did it feel to play the coolest robot ever in the movies?" Weller answered by asking his own question of the boy, "After being here tonight and standing up to ask your question, how does it feel to be the coolest kid in your school?"

Both Neumeier and Weller were quick to point to the contributions of everyone on the movie. They had praise for the sound effects team, and for Phil Tippet's stop motion effects. The make up guy who did Weller's face for the movie was praised as was the body motion artist he had worked with for six months to get Robocop's movements down. Even the local video store that provided a copy of Ivan The Terrible for Weller to watch in modifying his movements got some love. An extra treat was provided when Weller pointed back to where he had sat watching the movie and he introduced actress Diane Robin, who played the model who asked Bob Morton just before he was murdered if he was going to call her. She looked great and the audience got the solid feeling that everyone on that set had cared about how the movie came out.

My two daughters are both fans of the film and I managed to wrangle them into the theater last night. In fact they got there well before me and they saved seats for my friend Michael and I. I was so glad to see him there for this wonderful event. I look forward to sharing some time at the TCM festival in April.

I will save an analytical post of the film for another day, but I will add one final note here. When the movie finished, the roar of the crowd was loud, and it reminded me of the first time I saw the film back in 1987. The crowd could have torn the place down with their enthusiasm. Last night, Peter Weller could have done the same thing. A fantastic evening. Thanks one and all.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Quotes from the Birthday Boy.


 This year for my birthday gift to you all, here is a list of quotes from movies, one for every year I've been around. Think you can name them all?



Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas: A policeman's job is only easy in a police state.


Roger Thornhill: Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes?


Calvera: If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.


Holly Golightly: I'll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.


James Bond: That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six.


George Washington McLintock: You women are always raising hell about one thing when it's something else you're really sore about.


Joe: I don't think it's nice, you laughin'. You see, my mule don't like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you're laughin' at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you're going to, I might convince him that you really didn't mean it.


Alec Leamas: I reserve the right to be ignorant. That's the Western way of life.