Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver

While I was tempted at one point to suggest that the hyperbole around this film was a bit over the top, I got closer to the end of the film and realized that I was wrong. This movie may not be able to be oversold to the audience that it is made for. Baby Driver hits the notes, plays a nice melody, and has a crescendo that will build and satisfy like  the final movement of a symphony. All these music references are relevant because the song score for this movie is an integral character and you need to be able to grove to it to appreciate the way the film is put together.

In fairness to all of you, I will say upfront that I am an Edgar Wright fan. His off kilter story development and flashy cinematic style is strong enough to make a mundane story work, but it usually does so within the constraints of the universe that he has created. People who don't like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" are put off by how excessive the imagination seems to be. That film however is a comic book story that is designed to flaunt convention and dazzle us with flash. "Baby Driver" is full of flash, but not the kind of cinematic magic that you see in every other action film these days. There are not bullets tossed in the air and then magically landed into the chamber of a gun as it is twirlling in slow motion through the air. Lots of movies will have those moments (in fact I saw that very thing in the trailer for "The Dark Tower" which played before this film). The synchronized cinematic moments have to do with the soundtrack and the pop songs that populate it. The music matches the driving, shooting and running action on the screen. Yet when Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort, drives a car or runs across the screen, if is not obviously digitally enhanced. The moves look real.

The story is not new. There are standard gangster tropes throughout the film. The crews have nicknames, the main character is involved against his will, the brains behind the plots are ruthless and there are innocents that are used as leverage against our hero. Yet for every trite moment, there is a variation or twist that makes the story pay off for the character. An eight year old is used for cover in the process of casing a job, and the kid does a better job than the criminal. When there is a car chase, the cars really get damaged and the criminals shook up. The innocent romantic interest is tougher than we expect her to be, and the big boss turns out to have more empathy than you would have imagined given the stereotype that is set up. There is a seemingly indestructible bad guy who keeps going like the energizer bunny, but he is a character that is motivated by romantic revenge not simply the story requirements.

Except for the style of filming and the ability to use camera angles and editing tools so very smoothly, this feels like a 1970s heist picture. Everyone knows that something will have to go wrong, the interesting things in the story are what things go wrong and how they play out. It's as if this film is the grandchild of "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" crossed with "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3". The bad guys make  few mistakes but when they do, a double cross or a shift in loyalty is coming. Jamie Foxx and John Hamm are effectively grim and disturbed as members oif the violent crew of criminals. Eiza González is perhaps the most blood thirsty of the gang, so there is a feminist moment for you. Lily James as Deborah, Baby's love interest kept reminding me of one of the girls from the original "Twin Peaks". Maybe because she is a waitress (trope #243), she just seemed a lot like Shelly Johnson. Baby is over his head in the violence department, but he is never afraid for himself. He is smart, but clearly not as smart as Doc, the mastermind played by Kevin Spacey, in a role he feels like was tailored for him. He has played enough bad guys that this part is hardly a challenge but it still feels natural.

The practical car stunts and gritty character moments are the things that make this film enjoyable for an old timer like me. I only knew half of the songs that were used in the film, but all of them felt right for the moment and the fact that they are not as well worn as the songs used in a lot of other films, is a plus from my point of view. There were a few moments in the middle of the film that are not action heavy and I started to wonder if the film was moving off track, but it was just a counter tempo and a character theme and we get right back to the melody after those brief solos. "Baby Driver" is definitely gritty and stylish. It is not a garish shoot-em up, but rather a fast paced heist movie with a strong 70s feel. Just the thing to help rescue the movies from the summer doldrums of films like the "Transformers" sequel or "The Mummy".  Be sure to buy the song soundtrack, but make sure you get it on vinyl.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Galaxy Quest Special Presentation

Having made the trip to downtown L.A. last night for a fantastic screening of "Jaws", we returned to the area today for another screening that was equally marvelous, "Galaxy Quest" at the Regent Theater. This is a much smaller venue, and it lacks the historical value of the movie palace we visited last night. The venue is more of a club now a days but they do show films occasionally so they have a big stack of folding chairs that they can dig out and put in rows with zip ties. I can't really complain because the folks there treated us well and made sure that we got an accessible seating spot, so the staff is great.

The one time I have written about this movie before was in a post I titled "Three Perfect Movies". It is the second film on that list and as I said at the time, there is nothing that I think could be changed about it to improve it at all. The screening today was sponsored in part by "Screen Junkies", a website I am sure most of the readers of this blog have visited. They are putting together a documentary about the legacy of "Galaxy Quest" and there were cameras in line and during the Q and A, to insure there will be contemporary original material to go with their interviews.

They are working in conjunction with Alamo Drafthouse, who will be opening a theater complex in Downtown L.A. next year, and they provided a rough version of a trailer for the film at the start of today's presentation. Hopefully that preview will be available soon so that everyone can anticipate the film. The screening today included several guests, but there was also cosplay going on in the line and in the theater.  A young woman right behind us in line had her own Lt. Tawney Madison uniform and she was interviewed by the film crew. Later, a band of Thermians showed up in character and charmed everyone and willingly posed for pictures. That group ended up in the front row and will certainly be a part of the documentary feature as well.
The film, for anyone who has missed it, is a humorous tribute to the cheesiness of the Original Star Trek series and their fans, who would form the basis of the current geek culture. The movie does not treat the characters disrespectfully and it clearly has a warm spot in it's heart for the actors that are being thinly lampooned. 

The screening today looked to be a DCP presentation, and it lacked to switch from one aspect ratio to another that I so distinctly remembered from my original viewing of the film way back in 1999. The sound was great for the audience, but the setting were such that the cast and crew who spoke after the film, had a hard time hearing each other in spite of using microphones.

It is the guest list that makes the presentation today so special. Mark Johnson, the Academy Award winning producer of "Rain Man", was also the producer for this film and his appearance here suggests how deeply he really cared about the project. Also speaking of a film he seems to truly love was director Dean Parisot. Screenwriter Robert Gordon was included in the proceedings as well and his contributions to the discussion and to the screenplay were great. Two of the actors who starred in the film also were surprise guests, they were Enrico Colantoni who played the Thermian leader Mathesar and Missy Pyle who was the other female star of the film.

Johnson told a story about how the film came together and mentioned that he hired Parisot after having worked with him on a previous film, when the original director (Harold Ramis) left the Galaxy Quest project. Parisot was also described as famously handling notes from the studio by nodding his head and then ultimately not doing anything of the sort. The best example of that was the line that Sigourney Weaver was supposed to deliver upon seeing the crushers she and Jason (Allen's character) are expected to traverse. She said the original "F*@k" and Parisot did not shoot any coverage or alternate takes of that scene so when it is dubbed, it is clear what she originally said. Gordon spent some time revealing an odd note that came from Dreamworks Exec Steven Spielberg, that he'd had a dream about the villain of the film "Sarris" and a large ball. Everyone was a little unsure how to tell the genius that his idea was wack, and Gordon said he thought it might have been a test, to see if the screenwriter really believed in his own work and would stand up for it. Enrico Colantoni shared a little bit about his time with the film, and he appears to have created the dynamics that represent the Thermians behaviors during the movie. Casting Director Debra Zane was in the audience, and the director asked to to explain how she used Colantoni's audition tape to prompt the other actors for their roles. Missi Pyle told a couple of stories about everyone who played a Thermian attending "Thermian Academy", basically a camp project where the actors honed their off kilter vocal delivery and practiced the odd walk and arm movements of the aliens. The best piece of information revealed was that the rock monster, when finally ejected into space, was supposed to have a thought line that read "Tranquility at last", but someone decided we don't really need to know the motivation of a rock monster.

Everyone was heartsick about the loss of Alan Rickman last year, and that seems to have put the "Galaxy Quest" limited TV series on hold for the moment. Both Johnson and Parisot seem to hold out hope that it will still happen, and the crowd was very enthusiastic. We also met up with my friend Michael who writes the site "It Rains...You Get Wet". We last saw each other at the TCM Film Festival, and today he was joined by his daughter who is about to embark on her senior year. So it was a successful afternoon and a joy to see a great movie with fans who love it as well. 

Jaws: The 2017 Annual Post

As regular readers know, "Jaws" is an annual event at the KAMAD site. I probably watch the film two or three other times in the year, but when summer shows up, and the Fourth of July is on the horizon, I look for a big screen presentation of this family favorite film. It will be playing at the Egyptian on the holiday weekend, but we are traveling so that was out. Lucky for us, the L.A. Conservancy is hosting a screening at the historic Orpheum Theater in the "Downtown" area this evening and there are several bonus elements to be had.

Two years ago, I went all out for the fortieth anniversary of the film, with four big screen visits in a ten day period.You an access those posts, here, and here and here.  Sadly, there will just be the one screening in a theater this year but it will be packed with goodies, including a rendition of the soundtrack of the film on a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.

This was pretty much the same panel we saw at the L.A. Film Fest debut of "The Shark is Still Working" back in 2009. They told a couple of the same stories and once again gave credit to Bob Mattey, the creative consultant they remembered from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". It turns out that the fact they were pushed off the lot by higher priority effects for "The Hindenburg, Airplane 75 and Earthquake" gave them the opportunity to be more creative. Roy Arbogast was able to use new urethane products instead of latex and that made a big difference.

Joe Alves was on the project longer than anyone else. His production drawings had a huge impact on the look of the film, and even though they were not embraced by all the executives at Universal, the right guy found them to be very promising. Alves was on the movie before Spielberg was and later directed "Jaws 3D".

Carl Gottlieb showed once again why he was an important part of the crew. As the principle author of the screenplay, he helped build the beats in the story that keep it involving. Last night he did the same thing, contributing a comment or correction at just the right moment and almost always getting a laugh as he does so. He was in the lobby before and after the show, selling and signing copies of his book. I already have "The Jaws Log" signed, and you can read about it there.

Jeffery Kramer is the actor who played Deputy Hendricks to Roy Scheider's Brody.  He does get elevated to Chief in Jaws 2. He has been a producer in television for a number of years, but the blogging community will all love the fact that he was also in "Clue".

The screening was part of the L.A. Conservancy program "Last Seats Remaining" , earlier in the day they did a screening of "E.T." so it was a Spielberg day at the Orpheum. A couple of months ago we went to a live  podcast  at the old United Artists Theater now known as the Theater at the Ace Hotel. It is just down a block from the Orpheum. There are eight or nine old movie palaces on Broadway, and a few of them have been restored and are used for special events and historical purposes.

There was a beautiful flyer distributed to patrons, which explained a little about the conservancy but also listed the program.

One of the biggest pleasures was seeing this film with a huge live audience in a classic movie palace.  These theaters put to shame the new multiplexes which are long on modern technology but often short on style.
The fantastic neon accented marquee out front looks glorious at night, who would not want to go in and see way mysteries will be revealed beyond the door.
As was mentioned, the organist entertained for an hour before the program started, and while the whole Jaws Score was not presented, there were a number of John Williams pieces that were shared with the enthusiastic audience.

Steve Markham, a longtime member of the Conservancy, a WW2 veteran, and a collector, shared some of the beautiful backdrops he has. My Dad actually had two or three backdrops like this that he sold with the Thurston show. I did not take pictures last night but there is a nice video that includes several of the pieces we got a chance to see.

The theater itself has a magnificent lobby and there is a three level mezzanine to view it from. We might have been tempted to watch the film from the balcony or from the Opera Boxes on either sides, but getting up there would have been a little complicated for our group. There were bars on all the levels, including the lower level where generous lavatory facilities are located. There was also a lounge where one of the traditionally garbed ushers was answering questions for guests before the show had started. This is the kind of luxurious presentation of films that made movie going in the golden age of Hollywood a real special event. You did not simply see a film, you took your time soaking up the atmosphere, lingering over the opportunity to share a night out with other like minded patrons. The theaters were also used on the vaudeville circuit so live entertainment would also be on a program on a regular basis.

The world has changed, and maybe if we look around a bit more we will appreciate some of the things that have passed a bit more.

I've said it before, I miss the days when music filled the air before the show and then curtains parted to reveal the screen. I'd be happy to pay extra for these kinds of amenities if I could skip the half hour of commercials that precede most theatrical presentations these days.

The props and costumes were not elaborate by any museum standard, but they were a nice bonus to the evening. The movie was a complete hit with the audience. It was great listening to 1500 people scream and laugh together. There was spontaneous applause after a number of scenes and once again, you could hear a pin drop as Quint tells us his story of survival on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Robert Shaw has to be remembered forever for this five minute sequence.

The movie "Jaws" has mesmerized audiences for forty plus years, it is one of the great accomplishments of the cinema. If you think the effects are old fashioned, you need to watch the film with an audience. No one is longing for a CGI shark, we are all holding our breathe as the practical effects and live footage take us into the story. When you add in the surrounding environment to the experience, I can say we got one of the best presentations of the film in a theater ever. I know I have seen this film more than a dozen times on the big screen, and that is just in the last dozen years. This will be one viewing that will never get lost in my memory.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Lambcast MOTM: The Spy Who Loved Me

I get to talk about James Bond with other bloggers, and it's great.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Hero

Obviously Writer/Director Brett Haley put this project together with a single thing on his mind. The goal here is obvious, give actor Sam Elliot the kind of part that is worthy of his talents but yet seems to have escaped him for his nearly fifty year career. Elliot is iconic to most of the film fans of today because of his role in the cherished "The Big Lebowski". He has a small role as a laconic stranger who imparts wisdom and narrates the story of the slovenly hero in that film. Elliot though has been around a lot longer than "Lebowski". His first movie was "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", blink and you will miss him, but he was the star of one of the films I featured in my original blogging project on the summer films of the seventies. "Lifeguard" has a similar theme to it as this film, a man has to assess the life he has been living.  In that film, he is at the start of middle age, in this film he is closer to the end of life than the supposedly rich middle. He is terrific in both parts, but clearly "The Hero" comes closer to reflecting the life of an aging working actor than the previous movie did in showing us a lifeguard's mid-life crisis.

The script goes all in on making Elliot the only actor who could play this part. While Tom Selleck could give him a run for his money in the mustache department, two other elements would disqualify him. Selleck may have played some cowboys, but not as many and with such effectiveness as Elliot over the years. Second, Tom lacks the sonorous tones that are the voice of Sam Elliot. Both of them get lots of voice over work, but Elliot has a gift, much like Morgan Freeman, Elliot has a baritone to kill for. Both the mustache and the voice are focal points in the story, which happens to be about an actor as loved for his voice and mustache maybe even more than his acting talents. It is a double edged sword because it means he has had only one role that he feels really proud of, in spite of the fact that a lot of people do love him. This gives him doubts about his own worth and combined with the knowledge that he has been a failure as a father, puts him a bit into crisis mode.

There are two or three sets of tropes that can define the story. He is faced with career issues, mortality issues, daddy issues and while many will not want to say it, drug issues. The two films that keep creeping into my head while thinking about this movie are "The Wrestler" and "Crazy Heart". These are other films that use similar points to tell their stories and the comparisons are apt for another reason, they rely on charismatic performances by the central character. Like both of those films, an unlikely younger woman becomes part of the picture as well. In this film, that is actress Laura Prepon, as Charlotte a woman half the age of Elliot's Lee Hayden. In a refreshing change of pace, the difference in ages is an important part of the complexity of their relationship. Prepon gets two chances to read poetry in the film, and she has a very winning way of saying the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She and Elliot have great chemistry together in spite of their differences.

There is an important segment of the film where a Western Fan group wants to honor Hayden for his lifetime achievements. Of course this forces him to think a bit about what those achievements might have been. He has the one film he is proud of and a failed marriage and broken family to be haunted by. The sequence could have been a parody of fandom if it had gone the wrong way, instead, it comes as an opportunity to recognize that the source of his life force has been film fans like these. Although fueled a bit by some drug use, his heartfelt speech at the event creates some additional territory for the film to explore. What is an actor's worth? Sometimes it is in their talent, sometimes it is a unique relationship that they have with an audience and sometimes it is just the heat of a moment. All of those force Lee to consider what his life is worth. There was a nice little part in this scene for actor Max Gail, who I don't know if I've seen him since" D.C. Cab". As great as this moment was, a few hours later there is an uncomfortable counter moment in a comedy club, which forces Lee to reassess again where his life has lead him to.

The style of the film is dramatic with comic overtones and is punctuated by frequent dream segments that visualize the metaphorical nature of Lee's self reflection. It is not an action film or a slapstick and many people might be put off by the languorous approach to the story. I was not put off by it but my daughter found it a little slow at times. There is something great however in how the film takes it's time in letting Lee's story play out. Scenes feel complete and never too rushed. The relationship with Charlotte makes more sense with the pace of the film. The interaction of Lee and his neighbor/drug dealer played by Nick Offerman, is languid, in much the way you might expect consumers of particular substances to behave.  The relationship with his ex-wife (played by real life wife Katharine Ross) is prickly and the connection with his daughter is neglected and frigid.  Although there is a Hollywood element to the movie, it does not dominate the action but rather reflects some of the same doubts that Lee has about himself. If you have ever heard the audio clips of Orson Wells or William Shatner doing commercial voice overs, you might think they were being asses. Elliot clearly has a lot of experience in this area so he can convey the frustration of an actor with just a look and a pause or change in pace to reflect his own impatience.

The release is not wide but I'd encourage you to seek it out.   I may put together a mid-year list of films that have distinguished themselves. This movie will have no trouble making my top five. I really liked it and a appreciate the talent of Sam Elliot even more. Sure his mustache and voice are the key to getting us to watch or listen to him, but acting ability carries this film and it is clear that the director meant that to be the case.

Monday, June 19, 2017

It Comes At Night

If you have not seen the trailer above, wait to watch it until after you see the movie. It is filled with visual moments that will take away a little of the mystery of the film. I would not say they were spoilers so much as they are more detail than you want. I can say that when I first saw the trailer I was intrigued by the movie, but I only saw it the one time and I did not recall all of the information that it doled out. That was fortunate for me because the pieces of information that show up bit by bit help add to the suspense of the story. As usual I will try to keep this commentary spoiler free.

To begin with, the title of the film is accurate, but not in the way you expect it to be. There are substantial elements of horror in the story and they are often envisioned as a part of the night time experience of the people involved in these events. There is no prologue or background information, we are introduced to our characters as they are carrying out the inevitable but brutal task of surviving in the world they live in. Something has happened in the world, we never get a clear picture of what it is, but it has brought isolation, infection and paranoia with it. There is a family at the heart of the story and they are struggling to maintain a sense of family identity, surrounded by fear and unpleasantness. Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults has fashioned a claustrophobic Rorschach test for his audience, and there are two excellent performances that get us there. 

Joel Edgerton is an actor that I apparently first encountered in the Star Wars prequels. I did not realize it until I looked him up today, but he plays the young version of Luke's Uncle Owen. He really came to my attention however in 2011 when he was in two high profile pictures within a month of one another. He was one of the two brothers in my favorite film of that year "Warrior". The second was a film that I really ended up disliking and it came out just a month later, "The Thing [Remake/Reboot/Prequel]". In the years since he has had an interesting diversity of roles to play. The role he fills in this film is certainly different from what he has done before. He is a man named Paul, who has created a set of rules that he and his family are living under, in order to protect themselves from the horror that is happening around them. His terse delivery of lines and flinty looks suggest that he is a hard man. In truth he is a dedicated family man who has been forced to become hard by circumstances. One of the reasons a film like this works is that the audience members try to identify with characters and they are forced to ask themselves, what would I do? Paul is faced with tough choices on a daily basis and it may be alienating him from his son.

The son, Travis, played by actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., is really to main protagonist of the film. We see the effect the way the family has to live on his psyche. He is an inquisitive and sensitive seventeen year old, who needs to grow but is being asked to do so under difficult circumstances. He loves his father but seems less and less close to him as more tough decisions have to be made and sometimes Dad just chooses rather than discussing it. This is a dystopian film without a macro view of society, but rather a micro perspective. The horror elements involve tension and uncertainty with the consequences being equally unknown. The imagination creates as much of the unpleasantness surrounding the characters as their actual situation does. The question will arise on several points, Is Travis having memories, nightmares or vision of the future? The tag line in the trailer sets it up very well, the real monsters are created by fear.

This is not a traditional horror film and if that is what you want and expect you are likely to be disappointed. It is however a truly frightening film which build up tension, creates horrific anticipation on the part of the audience and then asks us to judge our selves. What would we do?  There are a couple of jump scares but it is the paranoia and rationale follow through of the philosophy of survival that Paul has adopted that creates the real terror here. There are moments of tenderness by all of the characters in the story, but they underline the dangers that this necessary route to survival would result in. It will certainly leave you doing more thinking than quaking in your boots, but they will not be the comforting thoughts that arrive at the climax of most horror films.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) 70mm

This is the kind of treat that might keep me from moving out of Southern California in spite of the traffic, social culture and politics. You just don't get to see "John Carpenter's The Thing" in 70mm most other places.I'm a fan of the American Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater. While some of my blogging colleagues are dismissive of the programming [one said it's great if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia four times a year (which I do)], there is a lot of programming that would not be the same in the smaller Aero Theater on the Westside. Tonight's experience means more because it was shared with a sold out audience, a group of standby folks queuing up in the hopes that there are some cancellations and a sound system that does justice to the film in an audio space made for it.

The one drawback of the screening was that the film stock is a bit faded. Seeing how this 70mm print is one of the few in existence and that the film is thirty-five years old, that was a small price to pay to see this horror classic. The six track stereo sound more than compensates for the slightly red hue of the print. Listening to Morricone's haunting electronic score while watching the images of Antarctica swirl by is a definite treat. The sound effects also benefit immensely from the complex sound design combined with the multi-track recording.

There are so many things to appreciate about this film that it is hard to stay focused. I will try to concentrate on three or four elements that always impress me whenever I watch this film. The first "thing" that jumped out at me tonight was how creepy the film is before we even know what is happening. The supposedly mad Norwegians tracking the sled dog across the snow and shooting at it without much effect is just the start of a disturbingly effective canine performance. When the husky reaches the American compound and Clarke scratches him around the neck to reassure him, the dog is sort of cute. Subsequently though we see that the dog is watching everything. It stares out the window at the search party that goes back to the Norwegian installation. It quietly observes the goings on at the American base with a steady eye. As it moves from room to room and encounters a figure that we only see in shadow, it seems to be acting so deliberately and thoughtfully that it can't be a normal dog. Finally, as the dog is lead into the kennel with the other dogs, it's approach is awkward and not dog like at all. This is all part of the methodical set up that builds to action rather than having action fill the screen constantly.

Once the dog is introduced to the kennel, the second great "thing" about the film that everyone who loves it talks about gets introduced. This movie is filled with special effects shots and monster creations that are not just on screen. This film was made with practical effects that the actors interact with and . Their presence in each scene feels so much more normal than the CGI creations that are found in the inferior prequel from 2011. The slime covered "thing" that is morphing into the dogs is disgusting to look at but we can't look away either. The tendrils that penetrate the other animals wave in a manner that was not created in a computer but looks like it is organic as they flip around like so many air hoses without nozzles. When Copper applies the defibrillator to Norris, we get a real shock with blood and sinew and bones being snapped. Rob Bottin and his crew make these effects dramatic, disgusting and at the same time believable. When the legs sprout from the dismembered head of one of the scientists, after that head has used an elongated tongue to pull itself to safety, you might be tempted to say the same words that come out of Palmer's mouth, except we know Carpenter is not kidding, he wants us to laugh sure but mostly to be horrified, task accomplished.

Since it is my daughter's birthday at the end of the month, I gave her the gift I picked out a little early, it is a design from this scene on a great t-shirt provided by a company called Fright Rags. One of my online correspondents works for this company and they have licensed images from this movie that show how the practical effects look so much better, even when they are being rendered artistically.

One final topic to include in this brief post on what many would consider the greatest horror film of the last half century, the star Kurt Russell. R.J. MacReady is an intemperate iconoclast that somehow manages to be a figure that all the other men at the station look to. Part of  the reason may be that they trust his competence as a pilot, after all he makes two hazardous trips to the Norwegian camp and returns with more information each time. Also, he has a cool demeanor as the crisis gets hotter and he manages to best them all when their paranoia turns on him. Any of those things might inspire confidence in him as a leader, but the biggest asset he has is that he is played by Kurt Russell. Russell is in full badass mode coming off a previous Carpenter film, "Escape From New York" just the previous year. He has a thick mane of hair, much like the king of the jungle, and his machismo is indicated by the awesomeness of his beard. Only a guy with this much charisma can carry off the weathered and bent out of shape sombrero that he wears in the film.

There are dozens of other little moments of perfection spread through the film, but I will leave most of them for a more elaborate post, maybe in my series "Movies I Want Everyone to See". It is a good film that shows how quickly character can be created on screen. There are a half dozen good laughs in the movie that would put some of today's comedy films to shame. The cast of actors also deserves praise and credit that I simply don't have time for today.  There is at least one more screening this week at the Egyptian. If you are within a fifty mile radius and don't go to see this, you will hate yourself later.

Big films on the Big Screen, that's why I love going to the Egyptian Theater!!!

Friday, June 16, 2017

47 Meters Down

Anyone who has cruised by this site, but especially at this time of year, knows that JAWS is a driving force in my movie life. Shark movies can be fun, stupid, exciting or irritating. Sometimes they can be all these things at once.  "47 Meters Down" is no Jaws, but it is certainly better than two of the three Jaws sequels, and as a summer diversion it is pretty much what you want for a warm afternoon or a cool evening with a romantic partner. You will get a lot of comparisons in this post, let's face it, there aren't that many shark movies, and those comparisons should help you decide if you want the take the plunge and spend your hard earned cash.

The two young leads in the film play sisters who end up on an off the books excursion while staying at a Mexican resort. The premise combines some of our worst fears. We are in a foreign land, trapped in waters that we cannot see through, running low on oxygen with sharks surrounding us. If you look up the word nightmare, most of this should appear there. The movie simply has to find a credible way for these events to play out so that we will be willing to endure it all. For the most part, things move as they might if this was a real story. After the set up, the girls are the only characters we actually see for the most part.

Director Johannes Roberts uses some dynamic photographic effects during the titles to create some foreshadowing. He and his co-screenwriter Earnest Riera build in enough complications to keep the time on the ocean floor dramatic and tense. Sometimes, as in most films of this ilk, the events seem to pile up just a little too much. It is true that we need some dramatic tension based on the environment, but every action turns into a complication designed to keep us squirming in our seats a few minutes longer. The dialog is also a little spotty. There are way too many premature celebratory moments between the sisters, and they sound odd coming from frightened people still trapped on the bottom of the sea.

I don't know anything about diving, but the ability of the girls to speak to each other seems a little suspect to me, but it might be possible with the kind of equipment they are using. While I appreciate the choice to eschew events on the surface during the crisis, it means that we get a lot of long periods where the girls interaction feels a bit awkward. The scenario in  last years "The Shallows" made verbalized conversation unlikely, but the words spoken in that film felt a lot more real than what is happening here. "Shark Night", "Bait",  and "Open Water" all have different elements to them to keep the story going in each of those films, so I guess it's not a surprise that the combination of events here plays such a big part in this story.

So for comparison purposes I'd put this on a par with "Jaws 2", it is a shark movie with other things to distract us from the fact that the sharks are not constantly attacking. "The Shallows" is a much better movie, but then the lead in that film did not have to try to emote through a three paneled diving mask and radio mike the whole time. If you pay close attention to what is said in the film, you will see a bit of a twist coming from a mile away. The only surprise was how long they played it out. Some of the teens behind us were unhappy with the climax of the movie but unlike some other films this year, this ending felt more deserved to me. We have our annual big screen trip to see "Jaws" scheduled for next weekend, until then, this toe dip in shark infested story telling will do. It can't sit on the same shelf as the Spielberg classic, but it fits in nicely next to "Bait" and "Deep Blue Sea".

Cars 3

Most of the movie blog world is full of contradictory positions. You can find people passionately defending "The Tree of Life" as a poetic masterpiece, whereas others see it as a self indulgent, experimental film with little plot, weak characters and the most boring use of fantastic photography you can imagine. There are people who love "Rogue One" and haters who see it as destroying the underlying concepts of the Star Wars films. With that diversity of opinion so widespread, it probably says something that "Cars 2" is universally despised as the weakest Pixar film ever. "Cars 3" is an attempt to restore the franchise to a more satisfying status in the film world. People who never liked "Cars" in the first place will probably not be moved, but, if like me, you loved the original film and hated the sequel, you will probably be happy to know that this movie largely works.

As with the original film, there is a moral lesson to be learned here while you are enjoying the action and humor in the story. Very distinctly from the second film, the theme is not heavy handed, political and surrounded by silly story telling that makes no sense. "Cars 3" is an elegy of youth and old school practices. Maybe we can do things better and faster than we once were able to, but the joy of getting there is being lost and something important goes along with that. Lightning McQueen has had his time in the sun, but there is a turning point in our lives that everyone has to face. The question is simply, how do you hold on to your beliefs and dignity when the time has come?  Anthropomorphic automobiles are a strange way to confront this concept, but they fit it so well. Everyone who likes listening to music on an LP played with a stylus, or watching a film presented on a Laser Disc, knows that they are out of time and place, but the appreciate anyway.

There are two very positive things about how the story is handled here. First, while due acknowledgement is made to the secondary characters in the original story, they are mostly backdrop for this film. That means you will get far less Mater and Radiator Springs. The smaller dose of Lightning's best friend is the biggest relief. Larry the Cable Guy should not be the lead character in the movie as he was in "Cars 2".  We get just enough to know that he is still a part of Lightning's life, but that puts him on a similar level with the other Radiator Springs characters. Paul Dooley and Bonnie Hunt and Cheech Marin all reprise their roles. I did notice that Michael Keaton was not doing the voice of Chick, and that hurt a little, but for the most part the characters who make an appearance are satisfying. New characters played by Nathan Fillion, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer and especially Cristela Alanzo are all effective at making the story feel a bit more fresh. The second positive in the characters is that we get a fitting exit for the late Paul Newman and his character of the Hudson Hornet. With just a few pieces of dialogue and some nice moments of recall, there is a more satisfying meaning in his characters absence.

One more thing that the film does right is keep the story as closely tied to racing as possible. There are at least three big race segments and they work really well at building story and tension. As Lightning and his new trainer Cruz Ramirez put together a plan for his battling a new rival, we get a good transition story that shows us some of the themes that I mentioned earlier. We need to recognize that the world changes, and sometimes we have to adapt to those changes. Lightning is still the hero but everyone needs to be cognizant that he ain't what he used to be. Owen Wilson's laconic delivery and frustrated tone of voice manages to make these growing (old) pains feel more real than we should expect from a movie with talking cars.

As is usual, even in those movies where the story has failed, the artistry remains. There are some amazing parts of this film that feel so photo real that you might wonder why they bothered to create those images instead of just directly filming them, Of course there are also several moments that could only existed in an animated world as well and they look pretty spectacular as well. The humor is not quite as strong as the original film, and there may be times when the little ones will feel a bit bored, but there is another race or visual gag coming so be patient. It may not move as fast as "Cars 2" but it is a lot more valuable Car Trip to take.

The Mummy (2017)

How is it we know that a movie is exceptional? One of the ways that we can reach such conclusions is by making comparisons to other films. A movie that is mundane will pale in comparison to something really strong. Excellence can therefore sometimes be measured by mediocrity. That's why we need films like "The Mummy", they show us how good films like "Wonder Woman" really are. I am not implying that this movie is bad, simply that it meets no standard for greatness except one, and that is the most obvious selling point for the film, it stars Tom Cruise.

I am probably a Cruise apologist. Of the forty plus movies he has made, only a handful have been clunkers. I would include his last film, "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"  in that handful of dismal efforts. This film is miles better than that weak sauce film from last year, but that does not make it great, it makes it average. Cruise as usual is winning in his role, in spite of the fact that his character is designed to be a thoughtless douche-bag who fails to follow orders as a soldier, steals from women and generally engages in the kind of archeological theft that Indiana Jones was accused of, without having any scholarly justifications for his actions. Tom just has charisma and it turns even vile characters into people we are willing to watch. As I said, this is the one big selling point of the movie. Cruise puts in as much effort as anyone can to try and bring this story to life.

The film is basically an action movie with a horror theme that needs to be a little more horrifying. There are a few creepy moments, like the camel spiders and rats that seem to be under the command of the villainess of the story. An ancient creature inadvertently raised from the dead and determined to bring the evil lord she made a pact with into the flesh, she has chosen Tom's character Nick, to be that vessel. So there is a monster and a curse but there are also stunning aerial stunts and chase sequences. With a half dozen jump scares that become progressively less effective, the film barely feels like a horror movie at all. Still it is mildly entertaining in creating a universe for these characters to exist in and providing a series of hoops for them to jump through.

A few of the things that make this movie passable include the two female leads. Sophia Boutella as the ancient princess returned to the world looks exotic enough and she grimaces well in conveying a sense of evil. Annabelle Wallis is sweet enough for us to sympathize with and hope the best for. Neither could carry the movie but they don't have to with Cruise in control and a scenery chewing middle aged matinee idol ready to turn into Mr. Hyde at any moment. Just like the pygmy zombies that were so fun in one of those Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, this update has something cool to sell it in the effects department. zombie crusaders. They are solid and they look especially creepy in the water.

A lot of people have been bad-mouthing the start of a new "Dark Universe" from Universal Studios, but everyone else in the film business has a steady supply of material to exploit and Universal is simply trying to keep up.  Their iconic monsters are laying around doing no one any good unless new stories are written for them, so the studio is following up. The paranormal team led by Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe may not be the Avengers, The Justice League or even Transformers, but hey can be entertaining if given a chance. I can't say this film is a bright start to that future of serialized stories, but it is not the failure that others would have you believe. This a a popcorn picture, disposable as any other fast food product of our consumer society. There is a place for romance novels in literature, hamburgers in dining circles and Fords in the car business. "The Mummy" reminds me of one of those mid-range sedans from Ford, it will get you where you are going but nobody will be bragging about the cool ride you showed up in.  You may look over at that Lincoln in the next theater, but if you have already driven it and know what a nice ride it is, watch this film. It will fill your two hours and remind you that it is just a car, and there is luxury out there that you can still aspire to.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

TCM/Fathom Events: 45th Anniversary of The Godfather

Sometimes you just have to sit in awe of what great film makers are able to achieve in the hot spot of their careers. For the ten years between 1969 and 1979, Francis Ford Coppola was the undisputed king of American Cinema. Four of his films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of them won the award, and a third film that he wrote also was named Best Picture. This evening I celebrated in 45 years of basking in his masterpiece, "The Godfather". I surreptitiously read the book when I was fourteen years old. I know my parents would not have approved but it was something everybody was talking about so I took a paperback copy with me around the corner from our apartment building and sat on a curb, devouring it for several days. Sure I memorized the racy bits, I was 14, but I also could tell this was a tremendous story and it should make a heck of a film. I'm not sure how I managed to talk my Dad into taking me to see it, but I know we went that Spring, when the lines were long and saw it in the Alhambra Theater. I was maybe a little self conscious sitting next to my old man when the nude scene showed up, but the rest of the film was so powerful that such discomfort never detracted from the experience. That was 1972.

I'm sure I saw the film a couple more times in the following two years as I awaited the sequel, a concept that up to that point was largely the realm of genre films.  One of the first dates I had with my future bride involved dragging her to a double feature of the two Godfather films, one where it turned out they decided to skip an intermission between movies. So my girlfriend and I sat there for six and a half hours straight, and she still married me a few years later. The film was one of the first acquisitions I made when VHS tapes came along. Before the price points dropped in the mid-80s to create a sell through market, most films were only available for $70 or $80 bucks, and this was more than thirty years ago. I pulled that trigger as soon at I could. It was a substantial commitment for a young married couple, and I was trying to get by on part time teaching. That's how important as a piece of art and culture it was and is to me.

I've seen it several more times over the years, on the big screen. The last time was two years ago when it was accompanied by a live orchestra performing the score for three hours as the film played for nearly six thousand people in what was at the time the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. Tonight's screening was nothing so fancy. It was a 4K projection at a Chain Complex on a Wednesday night. There were maybe twenty people there, but when it was all over several of us spoke to one another about what a wonderful experience it was. There was applause at the end of the movie, and the somber silence that always comes when that door gets closed on Kay's face.

I tried to watch things that I did not always focus on in prior screenings. There are two exceptional moments when the camera slowly takes in what is happening in front of us and lets the anticipation occur without fanfare. The reveal of exactly what it is that Jack Woltz has in his bed is horrifying enough. We watch as he turns in his sleep ever so slightly, then the satin sheet gets pulled down from his face fairly slowly. He feels the dampness but hesitates just a moment, the right amount of time before he throws down the bedclothes past his waist, and then, there is the quick reveal of Khartoum and the lingering horrified cry of fear and anguish from the movie producer, which extends in a echo as the scene shifts to Don Corleone with just the slightest of smiles on his face. The whole scene is iconic but watch how the pacing builds it so well. The second spot I distinctly remembered is in the restaurant before Solozzo and Captain McClusky make their exits from the story. We know what the plan is, we can see tension on Michael's broken face but we have to sit still as the waiter, brings a bottle of wine, shows it opens it with an old fashioned corkscrew that takes some time, and then pours a small amount into a glass that Solozo then extends to Michael. Waiting for the waiter to go through that whole ritual, without any dialogue, just the characters sitting there waiting themselves, it is something you don't see in movies anymore. 

There are a hundred other moments that deserve some attention, but that will have to wait for another time. Everyone reading this has almost certainly seen this film and if you haven't what the hell is going on? Make an effort to share this experience with a group of strangers in a dark theater. Be prepared to try and catch your breath as it is stolen from you by the brutal poetry of this story and film. There is a reason that many consider it the greatest film ever, it is visual and emotional perfection.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

KAMAD on Lambardy

I haven't listened yet, I wonder if I win. Listen in yourself to find out.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Double O Seven Double Feature: Tribute to Roger Moore

It was a sad day and a joyous day, all rolled into an afternoon in the cinema. Sir Roger Moore, who was the third  007 in the official series of films, passed away just over a week ago. As they did with Gene Wilder and Prince last year, AMC Theaters arranged nationwide screenings of some of his work as a salute to the star of seven James Bond adventures. People who do not understand the film business complained last year that AMC was cashing in on the deaths by selling tickets to the older films. The overhead for these special presentations and the screens that they have to give up to arrange them, will hardly cover the cost of putting this together. Maybe as a way of defraying these criticisms, whatever proceeds came from this presentation were donated to UNICEF, an organization that Roger Moore had served as an ambassador for several years.

For a generation behind me, Roger Moore was James Bond. He started making these films in the seventies and was the primary Bond of the 80s as well (no disrespect to Timothy Dalton). Gen-X had a suave, pretty and humorous Bond to admire. Moore was never the physical threat that Sean Connery was, but he had the fashion sense, snobbery, and tongue in cheek attitude necessary to carry the franchise through a transition period. The Bond films were solid money makers, but they were not the blockbusters that the mid-Connery era films were. Roger Moore stuck it out though two solid films, and in his third outing helped return the series to the heights it once had. Even though the films were big and successful, they became a little too silly to have the status of "classic".  "Moonraker" and "A View to a Kill" are fun entertainment but are also a bit embarrassing. There is however one Roger Moore Bond outing that qualifies for almost all 007 fanatics top ten list, and that is "The Spy Who Loved Me".

The two films chosen to represent Moore as James Bond in this tribute include that one, truly extraordinary 007 adventure, and then also his most serious outing, meant to restore the franchise to Earth after the shenanigans of the previous film. In an interesting choice, they actually played in reverse order for my double feature at least.

For Your Eyes Only

Fans of 007 who have read the books, will certainly appreciate the grounded nature of this entry. The story does not concern a megalomaniac trying to destroy the world, but rather a mercenary double agent who simply sees profit in selling out to the Soviets. It also includes bits and pieces of short stories and scenes from other Bond novels that had not been included in the films made of the original books.

As an illustration of the more serious tone of this story, Bond actually refrains from sleeping with the ingenue who seems to be a third his age. The romance angle that does get exploited concerns two grown women, neither of who look too young to find Roger Moore attractive. There is also a two pronged revenge story at the heart of the movie. The main Bond girl played by Carole Bouquet, is trying to kill those responsible for the murder of her parents. Bond himself pursues one of the villains in retribution for the killing of a friendly station head that Bond had trusted. We even forget the macguffian for most of the film as this pair of vengence stories plays out.

In one of my favorite scenes in a Roger Moore Bond film, 007 races up a series of staircases to outflank an escaping vehicle that has to use a switchbacked road to reach the top of a hill. As Bond shoots at the vehicle it slides off the road onto the edge of a cliff. As it barely clings to the top, the murderous assassin is trapped in the car. Bond walks up to the vehicle, reminds him of the agent that he murdered and then kicks the car in a cold blooded move, sending it tumbling down the side of the cliff to it's demise. It's a great moment for Moore to show he is not just a pretty boy playing at espionage.

Although the title song is solid, with Sheena Easton looking gorgeous in the background of silhouetted nudes in the title sequence, the rest of the score is a disappointment. I like Bill Conti but the electronic instrumentation in the first half of the film drains the action sequences of any tension. The music tightens up in the last third but by that point, some people may have tuned out. The film adds considerable charm when Topal shows up first as a suspect and then an ally of Bonds. There are two awful aspects to the film that you should be warned about, and neither of them is the fault of the lead actor. Bernard Lee, who had played "M" for almost twenty years, died as the movie was filming and the chief of staff of the Secret Service is thus filling in while "M" is on leave. The actor they cast and the direction he was given, create one of the least pleasant characters on the British side in all of the 007 films. For the stinger at the end of the movie, they simply could not resist the novelty that the head of state at the time was a woman, so a Thatcher doppelganger is used for a punchline.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Ian Fleming's least favorite of the books he himself wrote, is turned into a film that almost everyone will love. It has no connection whatever to the original story and uses the title to build the premise around. In the seventies, the Soviets were still an enemy, but the notion of British and Soviet intelligence working together provides an irresistible twist to the film. This film does feature a rich villain with plans to wipe out the population, but it is all the by-play between the two spies that provides most of the fireworks in the movie.

Roger Moore was at the peak of his physical attractiveness for this movie. He was a mature man who looked like he could engage in a fight, woo a woman and still look good in his clothes afterwards.

His pairing with Barbara Bach as agent XXX makes some sense since both sides are missing nuclear subs, and the two of them look great together thorough most of the film. Of all his co-stars, Bach is the one that provided the most chemistry and helped Bond feel more real than he had in a long time.

 "The Spy Who Loved Me" celebrates it's 40th anniversary this year. It was a huge box office success and is probably best remembered for the title song, the villain "Jaws" and the parachute escape in the pre-title sequence. There is so much to recommend this film that you could put your finger down at any spot and have something good to say about that moment. The whole sequence in Egypt around the pyramids and ruins was beautiful to look at and nicely staged. The battle on the super tanker is a well put together action sequence. The chase sequences on the island of Sardinia were also excellent, and they feature the second best car 007 ever drove. A Lotus that doubles as a submarine.

When I was in London a year ago, I added myself to the film legacy of the submersible car by posing for a picture with it in the Bond Exhibit at the national film Museum in London.

Moore has another great tough guy moment in the film when he flicks a hand off his necktie and sends a secondary bad guy to his doom by doing so. He then straightens the tie and makes a typical Moore quip.

He may not have been everybody's  favorite 007, but he made more of the official Bond films than anyone else. He is the first of our 007s to make the jump to the next great adventure and we should all miss him as a human being. Lucky for us, he had these two outing to leave us with the best of impressions.


For Your Eyes Only 007 Countdown

The Spy Who Loved Me 007 Countdown

The Spy Who Loved Me : Summer Movie Project

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman

Well, we have waited a long time for this and it is finally here. A DC Universe film that makes you anxious to see another DC Universe film. With iconic heroes like Batman and Superman and villains like The Joker, it still took a woman to put them on the right track. Men just can't ask for directions. Fortunately we have two women to thank for bringing these movies back from the brink of disaster. The perfectly cast Gal Godot and the very talented director Patty Jenkins. They have managed to make a film that is watchable but also memorable. The best thing the film does is give us a central character that we can root for and care about. Diana, Princess of Amazons, who has spent her whole life preparing to fight. We get to see that preparation but even better than that, we get to witness her explode into the world in a romantic period piece that has a great mix of reality and comic book silliness.

There are two distinct worlds depicted in this film. The first is the seemingly idyllic island that the Amazons life on, without the need for men. The only child on the island is the daughter of their Queen, Hippolyta. She tells Diana that she was molded out of clay and brought to life with the breath of the god Zeus. There is no sense of time in their world, so as Diana grows, it could be  over twenty years or twenty-thousand. She definitely has enough time however to become the greatest warrior ever among her people. Her mother despairs of her becoming a fierce instrument in the battle against war, but her Aunt Antiope, the current bad ass of the clan, knows that it is Diana's destiny. The whole section on the island is told with efficiency and with as little excess as possible, while still filling us in on the legends and backgrounds of the characters. Certainly there are some blank spaces and questions, but director Jenkins manages to keep us focused on the main issue, which concerns Diana's role in fighting back against the God Aries, the lord of war.

Chris Pine continues to impress in his starring roles. This second fiddle part is certainly not as challenging as his role in last years "Hell or High Water", but it does put him in a high profile blockbuster for another consecutive year. Between his Steve Trevor and the leading lady, it is nice to know that pretty people will always be able to find work. Gal Godot is the not so secret weapon in this film. She has a look about her that can be haunted one minute and determined the next. That she has a face that could break a man's heart and moves (admittedly enhanced by technology) that could render her the greatest action hero ever, does not hurt this film a bit. The sincerity of her demeanor at times when combined with her outright sexiness, should make massive fans out of those who watch this movie.

One other reason that I think this movie works better than "Man of Steel", "Batman vs. Superman" and "Suicide Squad", is that it is set in a more nostalgic period when cynicism was seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Scowling villains are not confronted by scowling heroes, but rather by open hearted optimists who see evil and while they may have some doubts about what is good, they want to do the right thing for the right reasons. Diana is so innocently hopeful that she is going to save the world, that when she experiences doubts, especially about humans, it is more believable that she can make a good choice in the long run. Her heart breaks when tragedy strikes at home when she and her Amazon family first confront modern man. She experiences the same slap in the face when she sees that even good men can be faulty in too many ways. The fact that we are capable of making an act of self sacrifice also an emblem of love, leaves it's mark on this Princess.

Spanish Actress Elena Anaya and veteran character actor Danny Huston, serve as the tertiary  bad guys, the ones that draw the focus of our heroes immediately. Mankind is the secondary villain, and it will survive to challenge Diana Prince in the future, as we already know from our earlier DCU experiences. The main villain is exactly who you think it is going to be. When he appears on screen, you just know that something else is going on here. Since it is a movie and film is a visual medium, there will be a cinematic confrontation. It ends up a little too much like all of these stories do, with  an ultimate power being battled on the most basic physical front rather than on a more cerebral level. Still, it measures up to the kind of fireworks you want out of a movie based on a comic book.

The battle sequences on the beach of Diana's home and in "no mans land" at the front, are two stand out episodes of the story. We also get two fish out of water stories for the price of one. Steve is befuddled by the ancient matriarchy he has fallen into and Diana is horrified by the ugly modern world, trapped in what seems like never ending war. The side characters in the WW I story are just interesting enough to be worth including, but since the story is not going to stay in this time period, it is understandable that they do not get too much backstory or time. The romance works the way wartime romances usually do, in spite of the short time period that couples have for bonding. I love the look of the film in both the mythical and battlefield visions. I could hear that Wonder Woman Theme come on in most of the scenes and still get goosebumps. I really liked this movie, and while it does have some story issues, they won't bother you much. Instead of worrying about a lack of backstory or the tie in to Greek mythology, the real Wonder of Wonder Woman is how do we get more of Gal Gadot in all of the DC Universe?