Monday, December 31, 2018

The Favourite

I am new to the films of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has been highly praised for a number of his earlier films. I don't know how representative of his style this movie is, but I can say there are certain things in this movie that seems to be unique to the movie and were clearly director's choices. Most of those flourishes are at the base of my reservations about the film, so I may be hesitant to sample his other work. Between the praise and Award talk about this movie, and the highly entertaining trailer, I was expecting something a little more light and maybe traditional. There is a core to this story that I think would make a fine film in another director's hands, but in Lanthimos grip, the movie becomes a bit "arty" and pretentious.

Deserving of high praise, regardless of what I thought of the rest of the movie are the three lead actresses. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, but especially Olivia Colman, deliver effective performances. Stone manages to run the table from naive, open innocent to secretive and manipulative with just a little bit of alteration in her demeanor. Weisz is coiled danger and iron will from the start of the movie and even as she becomes more sympathetic, her persona does not change. Colman as Queen Anne, gets the widest range of emotions to depict from the screenplay and she manages to make us sympathize with a needy, neurotic and selfish woman who is clearly beset by emotional damage from earlier in her life. At times she is charming but can instantly turn cruel and dogmatic. Her emulation of physical pain but also physical pleasure is marvelous. Even when she is costumed and standing or being wheeled around, most of the acting work is in her facial expressions. That is an incredible accomplishment when you see how the movie is shot from low angles and wide images.

So I mentioned that I have a couple of issues with the director choices. Let me begin with one of the most obvious ones, the fish eye camera work. In many of the scenes set in the Queens bedroom or study, the initial view is a distorted image that inflates the center, reduces the edges and keeps most of the image from being focused. This is an unnecessary choice that draws attention to the film directing rather than the story. It is an indulgence that took me out of the events occurring every time it came up. A second issue with the film and the director is the use of Chapter cards to organize the story into discrete parts. Some of this may be in the script, so Lanthimos may not be entirely responsible, but they basically serve no purpose. If, like in "Pulp Fiction" the chapter stops helped organize the time sequence of the story, or if the captions emphasized a theme for a sequence, then they may have been a use for them. Sadly, this was not the case. Words and sentences from each sequence are randomly chose for the transition slides and they mean NOTHING! They neither highlight or make comment on the events we are seeing, they are simply plugged into a random spot to break up a narrative. Something that is certainly a directors choice is the use of fonts and spacing on those transition slides. Once again, it is a choice that draws attention to the director rather than the scene. Like a cinematic e.e. cummings, Lanthimos screws around with the visual image of the lettering, to make it distinctive, but also harder to read. cummings may have had a reason for his predilection, but I cannot fathom what the director was trying to accomplish here.

The movie is also filled with crass sexual references and visualizations. Certainly the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes the inferences from the notes of the Real Lady Sarah to heart. The story includes completely superfluous moments of Abigail manually satisfying her husband on their wedding night and Lord Harly delivering salty descriptions of women and participating in a homoerotic game of dodge-ball featuring a nude man and fruit. Given the instability of the Queen and the sexual references, I was thinking that this film felt a lot like "The Madness of King George" with porn.

Dramatically, there is a solid story to be told about how favoritism is sought, manipulated and influential in the royal court. It may be that the court had sexual intrigue and back stabbing, but all of that is presented as the surface level of interaction here, rather than a secret and subliminal process. When the words come right out of the Queen's mouth "I like the way she puts her tongue in me", you know that this is not a subtle form of palace intrigue. The views of men about women in the time might be backwards and reprehensible, but the film makers reinforce those ideas with the way women are depicted here. Instead of a story about female authority and power in an era dominated by male chauvinism,  "The Favourite" focuses on the very things that men might believe about women, their pettiness and emotional cruelty to one another. Those are the things that seem to be at the base of political instability, at least according to this movie. The Pyrrhic victory of one woman is a lesson in the futility of women being in charge. It is emotionally successful as a epitaph, but it is an impolitic message to convey to a contemporary audience.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


I enjoyed the first of the "Transformers" movies, it was loud and full of explosions and destruction, but all that got a little tiresome as the sequels came. Since I was not a child in the 1980s, I barely knew what the Transformers were and probably missed the relationship that younger audiences had with the original cartoons. Still, it is a series based on a toy line, and that seems like the biggest product placement you can have. I assume it has been working, at least up to the last film which was apparently a bust and abysmal.

"Bumblebee" may not draw in the big bucks that the first three films managed, but it will go a long way to restoring some sense of purpose to the concept. This film still has big effects and robots bashing each other, but not nearly as much and the purpose is not to gawk at all the Metropolitan destruction on screen. The battles here are smaller, easier to follow for a number of reasons, and they are mostly connected to the story.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, an alienated teen (is there any other kind in the movies?), who discovers that the VW Beetle she owns, is not really a Bug, but rather an Apoidea. We see how the robot from another world got here and we know it's mission, but because of combat, it's memory has largely been lost and Charlie and Bumblebee have to figure out was is going on as the story unfolds. The thing that this film seems to get right is the relationship that Charlie and Bee develop together. It takes it's time evolving and there are bumps along the way, but by the end of the film, you can almost believe the tears that will be shed by these characters.

As usual, there is a subplot involving a secret organization of the military, tracking the presence of the robots on Earth. This film is set in 1987, so in essence it is a prequel/reboot of the original films, and thus humans can be deceived by Decepticons, even though we know that is what they call themselves. The smaller scale of the story allows for more coherent visualization of the battles. They are all almost one on one without having to shift angles and focus to close ups every 5 seconds. It made for a more relaxing but still exciting film. Jon Cena has the thankless role of the xenophobic military officer who needs to be enlightened. He is perfectly fine but he does seem like a stand in for Josh Duhamel or Mark Wahlberg.

To say that this is the best "Transformers" movie might be a little bold, but it is clearly more engaging than any of the sequels have been so it has that going for it. The 80s vibe is heavy so all the kids who really did love the cartoons should be happy and there is a good chance that a whole bunch of new wave acts will see a spike in their Spotify numbers in the next month or so. It is entertaining but not essential, go at your own level of desire to see this character, because that's it's real selling point. 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Anna and the Apocalypse

We have a new entry into the Best Christmas film ever category. Oh all right, maybe not, but when there is a competition for the most fun to be had in a Christmas movie, "Anna and the Apocalypse" will be there on the top shelf. This is a silly little mash up of "High School Musical" with "Shaun of the Dead" and the result is a delightful ninety seven minutes that will make you tap your toes and laugh out loud. The songs are sappy and although they don't consistently blend with the theme, they each have a winning charm to them that makes them worth listening to.

Just before the Christmas break at school, somewhere in Scotland, Anna and her father, the school custodian, have a set to over her plans at the end of her senior year. Anna and her best friend John, who is trapped in the friend zone, navigate the school's social castes and administrative politics as everyone is preparing for the big holiday extravaganza. Steph, the lonely American lesbian has been abandoned by her parents for a Mexican Holiday and her ex is not interested in spending time with her. Chris the nascent film director is deeply in love with singing star of the Christmas pageant Lisa, and she so desperately loves him back that they will inevitably break out into song about it. Also on hand for the proceedings is Anna's ex, Nick, the alpha bully of the cafeteria and about as deep as you expect. Throw in the self important, soon to be promoted headmaster at the school and your major cast is complete. All of these characters will get a spotlight moment or two in both song and plot development.

The Zombie horror is minimal and the Zombie humor is concentrated. There are three or four great visual jokes that land and a few that evoke nothing more than a chuckle. What makes this movie a success is the use of the musical aesthetic to keep us engaged. The songs and lyrics help lighten the mood, or entertain us for a couple of minutes, but they don't plow the story ahead.  They are often stand alone moments that draw attention to the musical device, but they are so well staged and performed that you don't really mind.  My favorite actually has the least to do with the Zombie Apocalypse and is mostly centered around a school pageant with lyrics that would make any adult a little uncomfortable when it is being sung by a teenager. Marli Siu provides the vocals and plays Lisa. Here is a sample for you.

I'd be perfectly happy if this was in the field with "Shallow" for the Academy Award.

This movie is a trifle filled with sweet treats for those with an off center sense of humor. If you think that the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a bad movie that has only the cult following to credit any worth to, then this film is not really for you. If you are a fan of Brian DePalma's underrated gem "The Phantom of the Paradise", you will most certainly appreciate the tunes and staging that make this story sing. And , if like me, you think "Gremlins"and "Krampus" are a nice antidote to over indulging in sentiment (which by the way I am all in favor of), then "Anna and the Apocalypse" is something you should seek out.

I'd hope that this would be a breakout success and become a perennial favorite at Christmas. Maybe TNT could run it 24 hours straight the day before Christmas. Unfortunately, the reality is there is no such thing as a Hollywood Ending. Which by the way, the movie already proves.

The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed "15:17 to Paris". I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It's unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in "Grand Torino", a man who today's generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I'm willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in "Million Dollar Baby", Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl's character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter's wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can't do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl's age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018


Frankly, this movie is ridiculous. The premise of the Aquaman is one of the loopiest comic book concepts that was ever created. There is something fishy about the whole idea. (Yeah, prepare yourself for a lot of bad puns her). Despite the silliness of the whole thing, it turns out to be pretty entertaining. If ever there were bad movies that won me over by sheer will power, than "Aquaman" can be added to the list. This is a mash up of concepts that should not work together but somehow manage to overcome the complete incompatibility of those ideas to make something that is hypnotically watchable, regardless of how inconsistent it is.

First of all, this movie is cheesy.  In addition to the bad puns, you are going to get a whole lot of metaphor in this review.  Like the soft, cheddar flavored goop that covers your nachos, this movie drips warm flavor over the saltiness of the sea. It is a fairy tale to begin with. The title character actually narrates the opening and closing of the story and it involves a peasant and a royal, finding love and trying to overcome the obstacles they face. There is a return to the glowing sunrise that gives the film a "magic hour" look, which reflects like the crusty topping off of your baked Mac and Cheese recipe. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out who the actress was that plays Aquaman's mother. I thought to myself, where did they find this Nicole Kidman look alike? Then it turns out it was Nicole Kidman, I had no idea she was in this movie. Her scaly costume must have thrown me off. Also, I did not know she was so Gouda at martial arts. Some of the action takes place in Atlantis, which looks a lot like the castle in "The Little Mermaid", but also the more CGI heavy scenes in "The Lord of the Rings" films. Oh, and just to emphasize the fairy tale connection a little more, the romantic interest in the film is given the same red hair as Ariel.

The second genre that is sprinkled on top of this souffle, is a Sci Fi quest story. A little bit like "the Hero's Journey" in most of these films, there are a series of steps the hero must follow to reveal his true nature. The grated Parmesan covering this concerns an attempt to unravel some clues which will reveal the sacred Macguffin at the end. If you thought the National Treasure movies were laying on the Provolone a little thick, than get ready for a panini  of ginormous proportions. For a movie set in the ocean, the characters end up on land, in the air and the middle of the desert for some very odd reasons. When the bottle has a secret code engraved on the bottom, which will only make sense in the hands of a statue that the characters find in a provincial Sicilian village, you know that fish oil is ripening and the cheese mold is finally curdling sufficiently to make you stop worrying about any consistency in tone.

A third genre that gets heaped onto this, like a slice of blue cheese that you don't really need but over powers all the other flavors, is a war film with a Kaiju thrown in. There are elaborate effects creating different under water kingdoms which will battle one another at the climax of the film. Some of the characters look like elves from the Lord of the Rings in elaborate capes flowing in the ocean currents. Other creatures are orc like fiddler crabs with one enlarged claw and an exoskeleton covered in barnacles. They are approaching each other like Calvary battalions on seahorses and sharks. This is the most comic book type image you can fathom. On the page, these panels would stand out as illustrations of over stuffed imagination, but in the movie, which is already filled with a bunch of preposterous images, they simple seem to be the natural conclusion to someones gumbo recipe.

Aquaman is a comic book character, but from the D.C. Universe not Marvel. That does not stop the creators of this movie from flavoring the pot with some melted mozzarella on top of the French Onion. There is a revenge story with a pirate who steals technology for the Loki-like Prince who is Aquaman's half brother. This character gets suited up like Iron Man or Ant-Man, and has crazy powers that he uses to try to kill our heroes. I think you will laugh out loud at the endomorphic head that the "Black Mantis" wears during the combat in the middle of the story. The top heavy look is another choice that makes this film a continuing bag full of Doritos.

The base that holds all of this mixed metaphor together is Jason Momoa. Having been introduced in earlier D.C. stories, he gets to be the lead here and he has the charisma to carry it off. Somewhere I read that this movie is basically "Wet Thor", and that comparison is apt, especially to the first of the Thor Marvel movies. Both characters are masculine parodies, full of self confidence and blundering humor. They are battling against siblings who are plotting to take over a kingdom and launch a war. At one point they are outcast and seemingly disgraced. Thor has to regain the power to wield his hammer and Aquaman, cleverly named "Arthur" in a brie moment, has to pull the sword from the stone, no wait, I'm sorry, he has to recover the trident from the ossified king. Whether we are dealing with Arthurian legend or Norse mythology, it doesn't really matter.  It is all nonsense but it is like a curated plate of cheese with enough crackers and wine, you will not notice how much it all seems to clash.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns

For a nostalgia junkie like me, this premise was catnip, with a potential for disaster. The original "Mary Poppins" is one of the pivotal films of my childhood.  It was the one movie that I distinctly remember my grandmother taking me to. I also recall listening to the soundtrack with my friend Kathy Callen and singing the words from the songs, because in those days there was no home video, we relived the movie through the music. So I wanted to revisit the characters and the setting of the movie, but there is always trepidation when a sequel comes along, especially when it if fifty plus years later. As things worked out, we are all in good hands. Rob Marshall has made a career out of bringing musicals to the screen and this original story with new songs fills our expectations in a number of ways.

The first thing the movie gets right is the tone of the story. There is some melancholy over a Mother who has passed, a family on the brink of financial ruin, and some grown ups who have forgotten what it is to be imaginative. Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up and face some adult problems, and Mary Poppins is really there for them. Michael's children are doing their best to be mature in the face of their family upheavals, but it is taking a massive toll on their childhood. When Mary Poppins drops out of the sky and into their lives, they are not being given a chance to grow up, but rather, to enjoy a childhood they might lose. OK, that's the serious part and it fades into the background quickly to give the main focus of the film full range. This movie is a visual confection, designed to entertain us with old fashioned story telling and traditional film making. An occasional boost from computer technology is present, but you never get the idea that this is a series of ones and zeros being manipulated to show us something that can't possibly be there. I know that the London Clock Tower was not used an actual location, but because so much of the film relies on studio backstreets and real sets, the magic sells much more readily. Kites and Umbrellas are real, so it's OK that the Dance Hall is a digital fabrication.

There is a nice chunk of the story told in animation, and it was such a pleasure to see traditional two dimensional line drawings and cartoon characters. Shamus the Coachman and Clyde the Horse are refreshingly old fashioned characters that look like they could have been part of the original film. They also lack the irony that so many comic moments in a contemporary film comedy would require. If we had just had the animation section of the movie, this would be a delight. Mary and Jack, dance and cavort with penguins and a variety of other critters in a show piece dance number that is all flash and fun. The cotton candy the children are indulging in while watching is exactly what I felt like I was consuming. Something sweet, light and airy, and it was utterly delicious. If there are critics of this film ( and I know there will be), I suspect one of their complaints will be how this movie mines the beats of the first film, in much the way "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" copied the original. There is an extended animated sequence as noted, there is also a visit to an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins to try to address a problem and a light-hearted comic sequence ensues. We don't have chimney sweeps, but we do get lamplighters who also wear dark vestments and dance on high with props, in ths case, bicycles rather than brooms. Instead of the suffragette that the original Mrs. Banks was, Jane is some kind of labor organizer. Thankfully, just as in the original, we are spared that as backstory and it is simply a characteristic to add color to the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a suitable performer for this film, he has talent and charisma enough to hold the screen when it is his. I was very much surprised to notice that this talented, Tony Award winning, Academy Award Nominated songwriter, contributed only his voice to the songs featured in the film. If I have any reservations about the movie it is that the songs are serviceable and nice but not memorable. There is nothing equivalent to "Chim Chim Cher-ee" or "Feed the Birds" or"Supercalifragalisticexpealidocious".  Maybe with subsequent viewings, "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" and "A Cover is not the Book" could in fact be hum-able and repeated, but it is a little too early to tell.

The not so secret weapon of this movie is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Whatever vocal skills she has, and they are considerable, she could hardly match Julie Andrews, so she doesn't really need to try. She adds a different characteristic to the film. Mary's flintiness falls away on a regular basis and she enthusiastically engages in the nonsense songs as joyfully as the children or Jack, the character played by Miranda. She sings beautifully and she dances with vigor and she looks the part the whole time. Mary Poppins is not the emotional center of the film, she is the initiator and reflector of the emotions that are being felt by others and Blunt is quietly and forcefully in control, even when she acts out. I thought she was fantastic in "A Quiet Place" earlier this year, this is a completely different performance but it is just as noteworthy. She may end up competing with herself in the Awards season.

The movie is also filled with other performers who manage to get a little extra into the movie. Meryl Streep doesn't really need to be here but she worked with Marshall before and she is in this just long enough and not any more. Angela Lansbury and Julie Walters also add a bit of English charm to the story. Walters is amusing and Lansbury is just the right light touch at the end of the movie. Colin Firth has only a couple of scenes where he twirls his mustache and tries to look like Walt Disney himself.  The most amazing element in the supporting cast however is Dick Van Dyke, playing the older version of a different character from the first film. He has one scene and the ninety three year old, dances and sings like it was still 1964. He has a thousand watt smile that is the perfect cherry on the top of this dessert.

If you are a cynic, a hipster, or someone who thinks films need to promote a social justice agenda, there is not really anything here for you. However, if you are a child at heart, or the parent of children, or you want to feel like a child again, then this is right where you want to be. This is a holiday entertainment that will please families and leave you with a song in your heart, although the lyrics might not be there as well. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ralph Breaks the Internet

It has been six years since "Wreck it Ralph" popped into our video consciousness and it's time for a sequel.  I am pretty sure I only saw the previous film the one time. It's not that I disliked it, it simply was not my jam and I never felt connected to it the way I have to other Disney films. So this sequel was not something on my radar until a trailer dropped, and even though it looked like it might be fun, I was in no hurry to see it. In fact, I ended up in this screening completely by accident. I'd gone to see "Creed II" in the brief window of time I had available yesterday, and the film failed. I sat in the dark and the movie never started. After I notified the management and they struggled for ten minutes to reboot the equipment, I was offered a pass and an invitation to take in another film. "Ralph Breaks the Internet" was what was starting next so here I am.

After having built a world out of the old arcade games of the past, the makers of this film decided that the thing that made the previous film worthwhile was that creativity which made the arcade games real. So instead of building a story in the world they have already explored, they looked for new territory and of course what is right in front of them is the internet. Take all the ones and zeros and turn them into an imaginary community populated with characters that make all the things we users see on line. Algorithms are personified, pop up ads have a life of their own, and web sites are viewed as corporate entities occupying space much like old school brick and mortar retail stores did. Our heroes go on a quest to find a rare piece of equipment on eBay, but of course the journey is complicated and the main duo has lessons to learn. 

John C. Reilly reprises his character voice as the lovable villain of a video game, who really just wants to feel a connection to others. His story was much more complete in the earlier film, in this one he is more of a cog in the clockwork of the narrative. Ralph does get to emote and the character has to grow by the end, but this is not really his journey. Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman is also a character with some story to enhance the proceedings, and maybe she could be seen as the key figure in the film, except I think the story is less about either of these two. The story is really about us, the users of the internet, and how we can trivialize just about anything and make it into something to be consumed.

One of the obstacles the two main characters face is a lack of cash, but on the internet, you can generate money with stupidity if it manages to hit the right sweet spot. Just as an example, the post on this site that has received the most traffic over the eight years I have been doing this project is for the movie "The Deep". I doubt the reason is my keen insight or the widespread affection for the movie. The explanation is simple, I put in a picture from the film that features the best wet t-shirt contest winner ever. Boobs bring in the boobs and "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is primarily about how gullible, distracted and bored we all are with the material that can be found there. The positives are mentioned as well but it is the critique of our behavior on line that makes this a message movie.

If you watch the details of the scenes the characters walk through, you will notice a lot of clever references. Memes that have come and gone still linger in the community. Sly inclusion of Disney characters is both obvious, as with the Disney Princesses, and sometimes more subtle, Mickey hats and castles. You might think this is a movie filled with product placement, but it is our collective memory of products that makes us notice them.  Gamers will find things they can relate to, this movie is almost a mirror image of "Ready Player One" in its' use of pre-existing products and images. While there is a scene that involves the "dark web" thank goodness it is not a realistic depiction of what might be found there. My favorite detail involves a Louisiana Licence plate, I'm sure you will find your own favorites somewhere in the film.

So once again, there is incredible world building, a serviceable character story and plenty of humor to carry the film. My reaction to this movie is very much the same as the previous entry, it is entertaining and it will work for families and those who love the setting. I would not turn it off if it comes across my radar in the future, but I can't see much reason to reboot and watch it again. I will be mocked by far more clever films than this in the future, so I'll probably just wait for them.  

Thursday, December 13, 2018

My Fair Lady: A Beautiful Memory

This is one of those posts that is personal nostalgia rather than a film review, so if you were looking for a detailed evaluation of the film, sorry, not today.

Last night I watched "My Fair Lady" on TCM as they were screening it in honor of it's inclusion on the National Film Registry. I happened to be by myself, a scenario that is likely to be more common than I have any desire for. As almost all film lovers know, much like music or the scent of Grandma's cooking, a film can trigger memories that are vivid and powerful, and that is what hit me last night.

In 1994, shortly after my Mother had passed away and my Father began living with us, "My Fair Lady" was restored and released in a limited number of theaters for a week or so. It might have been Mother's Day weekend that we chose to go and see this, but I definitely remember the experience. My girls were Eight and Six, and we drove across the county of Los Angeles, to Century City (A place my youngest commuted to on a daily basis for the last year) to see this at the Century Plaza Theaters, which were the Fox Studio's Premier Houses located in the Century Towers complex.

My wife and I delighted in how much the kids liked the movie, and as always, they wanted to dance under the screen while the credits rolled. I'd been sick with grief for several months, the circumstances of my Mom's passing and my Father's condition were putting me into a depressed state. This wonderful experience lifted my spirits and it was a turning point in my attitude for the rest of the year. As a family gift, I sprang for a Deluxe Box Laser Disc Release of the film, which was a beautiful Christmas reminder of the joy we'd experienced a few months earlier.

Last night's accidental viewing of the film stirred a desire to look at the elements that were included in the box set, and I thought I would share a few pictures.

This is what the box looks like. While there is no beautiful artwork  to illustrate the film, the photo choices were grand, especially the focus on the gorgeous black and white number that Audrey Hepburn wore at the Ascot Race scene.

As usual with great packaging, the extras here were special, they included a book about the film, a CD of the Soundtrack, and a 70mm film frame from the movie that came from an original print. These were all carefully stored in a fitted section located under the three discs that contained the movie and a number of extras.

Also included was a portfolio of costume designs for many of the women's gowns in the film. On the left you can see the two memorable outfits that Eliza wore at Ascot and at the Ball.

There is a program book included that details information about the film, the restoration and the history of the film. Somewhere in my collection, there is also a poster for this release, which was available to those who purchased this set, it is basically the same design as the cover of the box.

As I was watching this, I had some wistful moments and feared I might descend into another bout of grief, but as I thought more and more of our visit to a special film, and the pleasure I had from sharing it with two enthusiastic little girls and my wife who also found the whole experience delightful, I stopped tearing up and instead bathed in the warm glow of a family moment which helped me through despair twenty-four years ago. Last night, it worked a little more magic and instead of sadness, I feel uplifted today.  One step at a time, but this was a good step to take.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Elf 15th Anniversary

Frankly I'm not a big fan of Will Farrell. After the first five years of listening to him scream, I lost any sense that it was humorous. "Elf" came out right about the time I started feeling like this was too much. It did manage to channel that maniacal loud voice into something that was a little bit more charming and I remember having a pretty solid reaction to the film. Flash forward 15 years and I went to see it for a second time, this was also a regular theatrical screening, in acknowledgement of the Anniversary. I still enjoyed it, but there were moments that I wanted to look away.

The movie starts and ends with Bob Newhart so it has that going for it. I've always been a fan. It also features a supporting role from Mary Steenburgen, whom I've had a crush on since I first saw her in "Goin" South" in 1978. Finally, it also features Zooey Deschanel, right before she became America's Manic Pixie Dream Girl of choice. She was much more subdued and she has a sweet, slightly flat singing voice that worked perfectly for what she was doing in this movie.

The parts that turned me off are mostly related to eating. The Coke chugging and belch are just annoying but the spaghetti with maple syrup was a bit too far and subsequently, the stakes get raised with added candy, chocolate and then hand shoveling it into one's maw. Definitely not funny and more disgusting than some gore I've seen in a horror film. Just the thought of the gum scene makes my stomach turn. One other thing that did not work for me was Peter Dinklage going all Hulk Hogan on Buddy. Another scene that just misses for me entirely.

What does work however are Buddy'd antics in the mailroom, his rocket like arm in the snowball fight and the decorating he does. The Toy section at Gimbals was lovely, as was his Dad's apartment after Buddy works it over. The relationship with James Caan feels like there is a scene missing but the emotional payoff at the end still worked for me. All of the cast singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" was just what I could use to help lift my Christmas spirits.

One other scene that works but will probably draw flack from the SJW out there. Buddy is so enamored of Jovie singing that he wanders into the ladies locker room. Not only is that a violation of her safe space, but the song she is singing and he joins in on is now notoriously labeled an ode to date rape. Sorry my friends, the song was perfect and the scene was really a sweet moment of innocence that was awkward because of society's way of viewing the intrusion, rather than the guileless affection that Buddy is showing.  Over all a mixed experience for me, but I was glad to be out of the house for a couple of hours and it is a Christmas movie, so that helps. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

LAMBracket: Best Christmas Movie – Play-Off #7

LAMBracket: Best Christmas Movie – Play-Off #7: From December 1st until Christmas Eve, here on the LAMB, we’ll be determining what is the BEST Christmas movie of all time. We’ve asked you all which films are the main contenders, and …

championed by Richard Kirkham from Kirkham A Movie A Day

If you are not considering The Muppet Christmas Carol as your choice for the best Christmas movie of all time, you must not have seen the film. Not only is it a great Christmas film, it is in many ways, the greatest telling of one of the most important Christmas themed stories of all time. Charles Dickens’ story has been filmed more than two dozen times, with distinguished Shakespearean actors and American Television Thespians. None of them can hold a candle to this version which succeeds because of two fantastic features. First, look at the title, “Muppets”. I have heard that there are people who do not appreciate The Muppets, I don’t want to know who those people are. The off kilter humor, the manic and deadpan delivery in the same scene, the plethora of weird characters are all things that make even the most mundane material watchable. Kermit the Frog is perfectly cast as Bob Cratchitt. Miss Piggy is surprisingly subdued as his wife and the mother of Tiny Tim. Meanwhile, subverting the proceedings by drawing attention to the narrative explicitly, Gonzo and Rizzo Rat are a Greek Chorus representing Dickens himself. You can’t beat that for creative story structure on this particular tale.

Muppets alone would be enough to elevate this to the status of Christmas classic, but there’s one other secret weapon here that should overwhelm any other objections, Michael Caine. In most versions of the story, Scrooge is ancient and closer to the end of life. Caine is closer to middle age, which means his arc of redemption will span the life of the Cratchit family more. Caine plays crotchety without being particularly old.We can accept that he has an old man disposition with a younger man’s vigor. He also sings. Maybe not the dulcet baritone that would be featured in a stage version of the story, but he has a “talk-singing” style that works perfectly for the amusing Paul Williams penned songs.
“Oh, Scroogey loves his money ’cause he thinks it gives him power,
If he became a flavor you can bet he would be sour “

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Superman 40th Anniversary

It was 40 years ago this month that I trooped down to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with my band of friends and my girl, to see this comic book movie. More than a decade before the launch of "Batman", the D.C. Universe started with their most iconic hero. This was a highly anticipated film and we knew before we even saw it that there was going to be a sequel. This was the beginning of a comic book franchise that ends up setting a high standard with the opening two films and then trailed off with subsequent efforts. Regardless of how you feel about the revived D.C. films, the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films stand the test of time.

Unlike forty years ago, this trip to the theater was solo and on a Monday night of all times. The Fathom Event included an opening cartoon from Max Fleischer Studios, featuring an animated version of the Man of Steel. This efficient ten minute adventure looks like it was the template for the TV series to come. It certainly had all the tropes we expected including the opening narration. As it turns out it is available on YouTube so if you want to see it, gaze below.

With the appetizer out of the way, we are ready to begin our adventure. I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a nostalgia fan. Classic movies are one of my passions and one of the reasons is the period setting. "Superman" opens not with a pre-title adventure sequence like a James Bond film, but rather a simple curtain in black and white, being pulled open to reveal a movie screen, just like they used to do. The picture scrolls up like an old newsreel to the narration of a child reading the opening of what might be a comic book. Our viewpoint sweeps past a neoclassical skyscraper housing the Daily Planet, with a rotating globe on it's peak. We zoom out into space and we finally see color, and the John Williams Theme that may be one of the greatest movie themes ever. It is synced with titles that were hugely innovative at the time.

You can read about the titles and look at them at the above link.

Most of you I'm sure have seen the film, so this is not really intended as a full review. I just want to highlight a few of the pleasures of this 40 year old treasure. The whole sequence on Krypton is imaginative and futuristic in the way movies have always been. The budget and effects are certainly bigger than the serials of the past, but the aesthetic is very much the same. The sentencing of the three Kryptonian criminals serves as an Easter egg for the second film and we get to the earth story with just enough background to see how Kal-El ends up with his powers.  Glen Ford is only in two scenes but he is terrific in both of them. The Norman Rockwell Kansas grounds our strange visitor from another world, and his adopted father gives him the values that will guide him with as much influence as his biological father's teachings will in the Fortress of Solitude section.

When Christopher Reeve finally emerges as the adult version of Superman, we get our first taste of flight in these movies. One of the advance tag lines was "You will believe a man can fly!", well I did, and it was thrilling. The long action sequence where Clark turns into Superman, saves Lois and the President as well as a neighborhood cat is just nicely paced fun. The real treat starts however an hour into the film, when Gene Hackman shows up and proceeds to steal every bit of every scene he is in. Hackman walks off with the movie in an out sized portrayal of Lex Luthor. The fact that he is surrounded by a band of idiots adds some comedy fun without diminishing the threat that the villain presents.

The special effects in the climax are dated and modern audiences might laugh a bit, but if you are in the grip of the movie you will hardly notice those little things. The models, rear projection and practical effects work just fine at giving Superman a task that makes some demands on his abilities. Forget how implausible the reversal of time is and just enjoy the moments when Lois looks at Superman when she has been rescued and doesn't even know it. This is another thread that leads us to the sequel. At the end of the credits, we are promised Superman II next year, boy do I hope that Fathom follows up on that forty year old promise.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Green Book

When I first saw the trailer and concept for this movie, I was tempted to refer to it as "Driving Mr. Daisy". There are some parallels to the Oscar winning film of 1989, but the superficial comparisons stop pretty quickly. Although the racial component is certainly a key component in the film, "Green Book" explores the relationship between the main characters in a much more diverse manner. Viggo Mortensen plays a man on the fringes of society in the urban jungle of New York circa 1962, but in many ways he represents the whole country at a moment in time when the world might change. Mahershala Ali is more mainstream in the City, but even there he is a lonely figure, who is an imperfect vessel for a message of change, but one that he has decided to deliver.

The movie is a polemic waiting to happen but it steps back from being a political film at it's core and instead focuses on the tentative friendship between the two men of such different backgrounds.  There is plenty of culture clash involved but it is not just the racial disparity of the Southern U.S. at this time. Both men are guilty of stereotyping and potentially violating the rules of the broader culture. As they negotiate around their differences, we see a more allegorical description of the U.S. and it's racial issues. These comparisons are more subtle than you might have imagined but they can be pretty effective.

While both actors are at the top of their game, it is Mortensen who has the meatier role and the greatest opportunity to make an impression. His Italian-NY accent seems to have been home grown rather than artificially induced. His physique is not a result of make-up and fat suit but rather real heft and weariness. Tony Lip may be a bit of a galoot but he is not a dumb galoot. His story arc requires him to alter in minor ways over the course of the film. He has a couple of moments of epiphany, but those have more to do with his assessment of Doctor Don Shirley than any self recognition or awareness. Tony's attitude toward black Americans is uniformed rather than malicious. The effect however can be just as devastating and that's why it was so important for average Americans to see what they were doing to themselves and their fellow citizens. Mortensen expresses much of that dawning awareness with his eyes and face. Although Tony is hired muscle, he needs to learn to contain that power to appropriate circumstances.

The script is very amusing despite being weighed down by potentially solemn subject matter. Credited as the screenwriter along with director Peter Farrelly  and actor Brain Hayes Currie, is Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real Tony Lip. He pieced together this story from multiple interviews with his father and the real Don Shirley. Certainly there has been some liberty taken in making the story more charming, but that is a result of a conscious decision to make the film entertaining as well as important. My particular favorite touch concerns the letters that Tony writes home to his wife Dolores. The prompting he gets from Shirley makes the notes both romantic and funny. They also provide one more way for us to discover that a reasonably intelligent man can change himself in subtle ways to be better.

This is a crowd pleasing film which does not seem to be getting the traction with audiences that it deserves. Maybe there has not been enough praise from critics, or maybe the audience just thinks they have seen it all before. I hope that this small outpost of opinion can influence a few of you to take a trip to your local theater and see a film that will give you hope without condescending to you. 

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Double Dipping with Musical films from the Oughts


We are taking a slightly different journey this week with MIWETS (Yeah, not a great acronym). I would not really say the films I am going to focus on are guilty pleasures but many film fans might turn their noses up at such crassly commercial projects. One film exploits a TV show comic book legacy and the other one comes from one of the most resented genres among movie fans, the romantic comedy. I think each film actually has some merits that could be discussed in a passionate way because I have seen some hate for these films online. Neither film is essential, seminal or serious in any way. The two movies have one thing in common that moved me to pair them like this. Each one is a version of a nearly extinct form of film making, the original film musical.

It is true that we occasionally get a musical in an animated movie, or that a stage musical is adapted for the big screen. Those are rare enough however that even Disney cannot be counted upon for regular versions of this form. In the 1980's, music videos were basically inserted into movies to make them musicals, think "Flashdance" or "Footloose". They worked well enough to bring in the music but audiences not used to actors breaking out in song would probably not go for a modern version of fifties style musicals. The safe bet has been to put stage musicals on the screen. The two films I am focusing on here try to varying degrees to use the format of "An American in Paris" or "A Star is Born". They take an original story that includes music and then adapt it to movie form. Both use a backstage perspective, so the songs are connected to public performances, and not just singing as the characters walk down the street. It is for the music and particularly the songs that I have included them in this series.

josie_and_the_pussycats_ver2The first film of today's double feature is "Josie and the Pussycats" from 2001. Roger Ebert put it this way: "Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they're as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough." He gave the movie a half star. While I have always appreciated Ebert as a film critic, I have not always agreed with him and this is one of those times. At this point in his life I think he had finally disconnected from the audience relationship that had made his work with Gene Siskel so effective, and he simply spouted off on something he did not get. In his review he even gets picky about the term subliminal versus subaural, and he got that wrong also. Subliminal refers to consciousness which is the correct way in which it is used in the film, subaural is below the ear, and means nothing in this context.
The film is a cute girl-empowering satire on marketing. It is not about how a band is put together or even how it might become successful, it is about how that band might then be exploited to sell other stuff. Is the movie subtle? Hell no, it is obvious and goes for very big jokes, most of them visual. It is clear that the brands in the movie are being marketed in product placement as a way of mocking that placement. Lots of other films or Television shows would be viewed as cutting edge for the type of humor that is attempted here and for trying to reach the audience that the film is trying to appeal to.  I can accept that others may not like the humor or that the story is a bit obvious but I am defiant in my belief that the music in this film is worthy and that's why I want people to see the movie.

I love a good title song, but a song that is part of the story and is integrated into the themes is the type of song I think makes a movie work as a musical experience.  "Josie and the Pussycats" has at least three great songs that make the story memorable.  Ebert wrote "The music is pretty bad. That's surprising, since Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds is one of the producers, and knows his way around music. Maybe it's supposed to sound like brainless pre-teen fodder, but it's not good enough at being bad to be funny, and stops merely at the bad stage." It's silly to get into a debate with a dead man but come on, just saying it without explaining it is the worst appeal to authority there is. Ebert was not a music authority, and to be fair, neither am I but I'm willing to at least explain my position. To start let's take "Pretend to be Nice":

This song has a very appealing guitar lick, a fun chorus and a wicked hook that keeps pulling us in. Yes it is pop, but listen to the refrain "pretend to be nice" when sung by the lead in a mock low key sexy voice. There is real sarcasm there. It fits in as an example of the kind of song a girl band might be expected to play. It is smarter than any Spice Girls song and I think that undermined the belief that this movie was about bad music, it was about mocking bad music by taking it's form and subverting it.

Example Number Two is "three small words". This is an up tempo power pop song that gives the Pussycats the perfect opportunity to insert a performance based music video into the film. Look and listen:

Anyone who doesn't appreciate that song just doesn't understand that Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon.

The ultimate example of the musical bliss of "Josie and the Pussycats" however is not provided by the title group. Instead the greatest example of musical subversion is done by the Boy Band that the Pussycats are being used to replace in the movie. I think Ebert must have missed the lyrics or have been totally unfamiliar with the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC. "DuJour", provides the moment of musical genius early on in the film and if you listen to the song you will know how to listen to the songs in the rest of the movie. Here is the final nail in the coffin of the naysayers for this film:

"just cuz i slip in back doors,
well, that doesn't make me, hey!"

That just summarizes the whole music scene of the early 2000s. Maybe it isn't something everyone should see, but it certainly isn't something that everyone should reject. I may come back and defend the story, actors and whole film in another place, but for now the focus is on the music and it works the way it is supposed to in the film.

After a brief intermission, it is time to move on to the second film in this musical extravaganza.

music_and_lyrics_ver2"Music and Lyrics" from 2007, is a much more conventional film. It is a romantic comedy that features music and both embraces and mocks the taste of popular culture. It features two of the most appealing stars of the last twenty years, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, who between them have as many romcoms under their belts as anyone this side of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This movie was moderately successful at the box office and has almost certainly a bigger audience than the first movie and it also has some great music designed explicitly for the purpose of the story.

The setting of the love story here involves the accidental meeting of two people who have complementary artistic skills but conflicting social skills. No one will be surprised by the development of the love story, it has the usual cute meet, slow romance, complication and then satisfying resolution. So it is all formula, but it is a formula that works because of the extra ingredients that get ladled on top. To begin with, Grant plays a semi washed up pop star from the 1980s. If you can imagine Duran Duran and Wham having children, the result would probably be the fictional band "Pop".  Here in the title sequence of" Music and Lyrics" is the video for their biggest imagined hit:

This is a pretty perfect spoof of 80s pop video. The little sideways booty snap would fit into almost any George Michael video of those times. The song is a lightweight confection that illustrates the weightlessness of music from that period. Even though it has no heft to it, there is still significance to it. People are moved by music and while we may not appreciate someone else's taste in songs, to that person the song matters. That is shown in a couple of ways in this film. First through the hysterical behavior of middle aged women reliving their wild teen years at nostalgia performances by Grant's character Alex Fletcher. Yet we also see that the music can be inspirational to the next generation when Cora Corman, a Britney Spears knock off hires Alex to pen a new tune for her because she was a fan of the video.

A short clip of her current music video tells us all we need to know about how deep she is:

The creative process is something that is hard to visualize on screen. Painters in films get montages of images swirling as they put their imagination on the canvas. Writers are usually depicted as reflecting on their "inner eye" and recalling the story they want to tell. In a romantic comedy about writing a pop song we get a nice sequence showing how a last minute demo track comes together as the two co-writers race against a deadline. Here is how it is envisioned in the film:

What you see is not a complete version of the song but the romantic comedy version of the creative process. It works at building character and also shows us how the two miss matched lovers are going to come together. I think it is a very effective sequence and it has the advantage of having something to do with the story. Later in the movie we will get a more complete version of the song that will help cement our happy ending and irritate all those who hate Romantic Comedies in the first place, but as a song, this piece of music works as it is intended.

There is one other link between these films. Many of the songs share a common composer; Adam Schlesinger. He is the genius behind the song that made "That Thing You Do" one of my "Perfect Films". Probably best known for leading his band "Fountains of Wayne" onto the charts with "Stacy's Mom", Schlesinger has contributed to a number of songs in films and his work makes both of today's movies something I want everyone to see. The songs are not simply pop music inserted into the closing credits, but they are integral parts of the movies that they come from. That seems like a better standard for a movie music award than how big the pop star is that wrote it.  If you can think of some songs from movies that drive the story, explain the characters or enliven the pace of the film, please share them. MIWETS is all about sharing the love.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.