Thursday, July 18, 2019

Young Sherlock Holmes


Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, "films lost in time". This really should not be a lost film but given it's lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today's audience is only vaguely familiar with it. 

This should have been a smashing success given it's pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed "The Natural" the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for "Rain Man" three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I'll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let's talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times]. 

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life. 
 
The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage. 

Although primitive by today's standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show. 

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That's right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let's add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie. 
 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true "what the hell" moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple. 

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points. 
Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation. 

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven'y yet viewed the movie and don't want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails. 

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. "Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this." If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. "Goonies" would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, "Cocoon" would have stalled Ron Howard's career, and "Raiders" would be an experiment that failed. 

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively. 

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in "Silverado" from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film. 

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior "Mr. Holmes" which I guess we can call "Old Sherlock Holmes". 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stuber



This weekend was all back to basics at the movies. "Crawl" is a straightforward horror/thriller and "Stuber" is a honest to goodness action/comedy. Once in a while there were bits and pieces of social justice issues raised, but they are ultimately mocked or conventionally accepted and the film is about the jokes and the laughs rather than anything serious.  Kumail Nanjani did not write this screenplay, but it fits him as easily as the part he wrote for himself in the Oscar Nominated screenplay for "The Big Sick". He plays Stu, a meek guy trying to make ends meet and get the girl of his dreams at the same time. His part time Uber gig brings him into contact with a hard as nails cop, played by Dave Bautista.

Buddy cop movies have been around for a long time and the variations are numerous. We've had old cop/young cop stories, goodcop/bad cop morality tales, and cops paired with dogs, Russians, Zombies, and even a T-Rex. Some of those movies were action films with a little comedy thrown in, "Stuber" is the opposite, it is a comedy with a little action added to it. The reason that the cop has to take uber is that he is recovering from lasik eye surgery and has basically become Mr. Magoo with a gun. This movie is filled with slap stick moments, some as simple as tripping or banging your head accidentally because your vision is impaired, but other moments of slap stick involve shooting people in the head or running them over with a car. The tone of the film sometimes tries to play it seriously, but we never do because there is way too much screaming.

The two main actors are solid in what are likely to become their signature character types. Nanjani is the striving outsider with difficulty expressing himself. Bautista is the bull in a china shop, ready at any moment to break something within arms reach. It may be a little unfair to pigeon hole them at this point, but let's face it, stereotyping is  what casting is all about, and we know immediately what these characters are by who is playing them. The plot of the story is fairly standard cop movie stuff [dead partner/rogue cop/drug gang/duplicitous superiors etc.] What is creative here is the use of contemporary culture touchstones like cell phones, spin classes, and uber itself, to tell the story. Stu has movie culture to refer to in trying to cope with the circumstances he has found himself in. There are a half dozen cues picked up from other films that tell him how to behave or what to expect. Of course none of that comes out the way it is supposed to. As a straight man, Dave Bautista is solid but he has something else going for him, His charisma would allow him to play the part straight, but he has good comic timing and a voice that can make a joke work, even when it is not very good.

You will not remember the plot of the film for long after you see it. There are so many cliches involving the cop story that it will run together with dozens of other films. Heck, even the strained relationship between Bautista's character and his daughter, is a trope that was mined in "Crawl"  . Parents and their adult children sometimes have issues, big surprise. The thing that will hold over in your head however is the comic relationship between the two leads. It's a silly premise and there is no reality to the cop procedural stuff, but who cares about that when you are laughing.

I'm willing to endorse a film if it gives me four or five good laughs, and maybe one hysterical moment. Although I think they overdo the screaming moments of the film a bit, there were at least a dozen times that I laughed out loud. As someone who is suspicious of the range of an electric car, there is a joke waiting to happen, and it does. There were also some outright slap sticky moments with gun play in the film. And just for good measure as Henslowe advised in "Shakespeare in Love", it's always good to add a bit with a dog. 

Crawl



I love it when a movie lives up to your expectations, no matter how low they might be. This is a horror, thriller that doesn't pretend to have some deep comment about global warming or the place on animals in human habitats. Let people who want to argue about the right of coyotes to wander freely in suburban neighborhoods have their conversation someplace else. This movie is simple. Take some sympathetic characters, put them in jeopardy, and try to scare the crap out of the audience. Very basic and there are no supernatural elements to it, so those skeptics out there when it comes to ghost stories don't have to worry, because this stuff is real [or at least as real as you can expect in a movie.]

There are a dozen or so people listed in the cast but in reality, this is a two person story. Haley, a college student on the swimming team travels back home looking for her father, as a massive hurricane is about to hit Florida. They end up trapped in the basement of their old house, battling alligators who have moved in with the rising flood waters. The premise sells itself, this is a high concept low budget feature. Man against nature is a recurring theme in lots of films, often with a philosophical bent to the plot line. "The Grey" and "The Edge" are two examples that come to mind. There are however lots of examples of movies that do the same thing without any metaphysics or spiritual overtone. Last summer we got "The Meg" which is simply a giant shark movie. A few years ago, there was "Bait" about a similar circumstance with people trapped in a department store after a tidal wave and sharks going after them. These movies are only interested in scaring you for ninety minutes and giving you a reason to eat popcorn in public.

Barry Pepper plays the Dad, who is a perpetual cheerleader for his daughter and pushed her as she was learning to become a champion swimmer. The relationship is a little strained because the parents broke up and Haley thinks it's her fault because he neglected Mom to boost her career. That is just filler for the moments when we are catching our breath between gator attacks. This is a movie filled with jump scares and dramatic plot complications every five minutes.  Every time a little hope creeps in, the gators in the story manage to crush it, and if the gators don't then the hurricane does. Admittedly, this is a movie that strains credibility in a few places. Our heroes get injured in ways that most of us would go into shock over and maybe end up in a coma. These two just strap up their limbs and keep fighting on. I turned to my own daughter right after the film and said, "Yeah, we'd be dead."

The creativity in this story is primarily based around building up one objective after another, figuring out how to overcome it, throwing in a plot complication and then adding a visual moment of terror. It works over and over. Kaya Scodelario gamely crawls through mud, effuse, rats and body parts as Haley. She is also fine in the non-action scenes as well but she got her check from submitting to some pretty grueling physical scenes. Pepper has a few moments in the last quarter of the movie, but he is mostly immobile in the first part of the film. Credulity is also tested when he has to do some of the physical stuff and his character has been hampered by substantial injuries but he carries on anyway.

 There are a half dozen other actors in the movie, but as you can probably guess, they are grist for the gator mill and those moments are satisfying from a horror fans perspective. Let's just say that what happens to the unfortunate soul who gets caught by a mob of zombies, is not too different from what happens here. Oh, and because the movie is pretty simple and standard in it's story telling, there is also a dog for you to worry about throughout the ordeal. I like "B" movies that work well and are well made and "Crawl" fits the bill to a tee. So it's not "Jaws", instead it's a faster paced, better version of "Jaws 2". I just wish I'd been able to see it at a drive-in.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Charley Varrick, The Last of the Independents



I'm not sure whether to classify this as one of my "Movies I Want Everyone to See" or as a "Film Lost in Time". It certainty fits the former category but for some film fans it may fit the later as well. It stars Walter Matthau, a guy who many modern film fans will not know well, but anyone over 40 is likely to have a dozen Matthau films on at least one of their best of lists. He appeared in in "Charade", "Fail-Safe" ,"The Fortune Cookie" and most famously "The Odd Couple" in the 1960s. I knew him best however from his 1970s output which includes three gritty thrillers from 1973 and 74, this film plus "The Laughing Policeman" and the great "Taking of Pelham 1-2-3".

With his hangdog face, laconic voice and middle age physique, Matthau hardly seems to be the template for a movie star. He used all of those characteristics however to play a series of recognizable human beings in circumstances that are a little bit extraordinary. As the title character in this film, he is a small time bank robber who along with his wife, eeks out an existence on the margins of society. The meticulous small town bank robbery he has planned goes off the rails within just a few moments.

Let's start by looking at the credits and seeing the style of director Don Siegel. On on the heels of his smash Clint Eastwood film, "Dirty Harry", the director followed his cop picture with a robbers picture. The movie opens slowly without any sense of direction, by showing us idyllic scenes of small town life in what is presumably New Mexico. People are sweeping their yards and sidewalks, kids are riding their bikes, ranchers are traversing their property checking on livestock. Nothing ominous in any of that.  Suddenly we see the plaque on the bank and our mood will change immediately. Like the long set up shot in "Dirty Harry" it's not until one element is revealed that we get any sense of where the story might be going.

Almost immediately, Matthau is on screen, but he is wearing a mustache and a grey wig. The woman driving the car tells a police officer who has come to warn them about parking in a red zone, that her husband is infirm because of an injury. Matthau is then shown to be wearing an anle cast and the disguise seems more effective. He is playing the grumpy old man, twenty years before that became his signature role in the 1990s. As luck would have it, the cop as he is pulling away has a memory of the licence plates of the Lincoln, being on the hot sheet of auto thefts that he came across and so he starts back around to investigate. This is just one of the things that goes bad for the criminals and all hell breaks loose rapidly. Here again, you can see Siegels's style as the robbery gone wrong will remind you of the robbery gone wrong in the Eastwood picture. Violence breaks out quickly and some die quickly while others linger. The seventies were full of car chases that were improbable, but the quick getaway here is messy and believable for the most part.

If there is one fault in the script, it is the limited reaction of Charley Varrick to what transpires with his wife. Sure he is a professional, and cold calculating behavior might be expected, but the screenplay tries to establish their relationship as being long term and deep, and It is hard to pass something like that off as casually as Varrick seems to.  There is a character fault that also we should get out of the way early. Andy Robinson's character of Harmon, their accomplice in the robbery, is pigheadedly stupid. He barely listens to the wisdom that Charley wants him to follow and he seems to be subtly threatening Charley, a man who has just masterminded a robbery that resulted in the death of three people. It's as if he is inviting a chance to be double crossed. There is also a little emotional whipsaw going on as Harmon goes from sympathetic exposition devise to belligerent plot development. Robinson famously portrayed the killer in "Dirty Harry" and he mines some of the same facial expressions and desperation in this movie that he used there. In the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafia enforcer, he whines in the same pitiful voice as his Scorpio character in the previous film.


Like most 70s films, this story is not in a hurry. Character gets developed by scenes that have irrelevant details in them. Background characters add a little bit of spice or humor without being essential. There are side trips that seem to lead nowhere but tell us a lot about the characters we are watching. For instance, Joe Don Baker as the hitman/enforcer Molly, stops at a location owned by the mob as he is starting his investigation. It is a brothel, and basically nothing happens there except we see what kind of man he is. He is brusque with the help and specific in his wants.  A similar scene takes place when high ranking mob guy John Vernon attempts to meet with the Bank President who is a confederate of the criminal organization. He is delayed by the police and steps over to a nearby park to push a little girl on a swing. Nothing transpires but we get the sense that this criminal is a little different from others.

Since I just mentioned both of them, let's take a little sidetrack of our own and talk about these great character actors. The late John Vernon was the duplicitous partner to Lee Marvin in "Point Blank".He went over the edge of the balcony naked and crashed to the ground in that movie, in other words, in his debut film he was a smash. He appeared in a couple of Clint Eastwood films and the Don Siegel film that followed this one, "Black Windmill". He typically played a sinister antagonist, often an official like a Mayor or his most famous role as Dean Wormer in "Animal House". His voice was distinctive and his demeanor authoritative but rarely powerful. He sometime came across as the feckless power standing by while wiser or more bold characters acted.
 
Joe Don Baker is an actor I first encountered in the film "Junior Bonner". I next remember him for an obscure "B" movie I saw while at school called "Golden Needles". His big breakout however was in the movie "Walking Tall" an exploitation film that achieved huge financial success and spawned several sequels that he did not appear in. His Texas drawl and pseudo avuncular personality made him a disturbing threat in this film. He comes across as a professional but it is clear that he enjoys the sadism of his vocation. As an actor he has also appeared in three James Bond movies so that automatically puts him on a list of some of my favorites.

There are a bunch of other well known character actors in the film as well. Normal Fell and Sheree North are two performers you would bump into if you turned on the TV just about any time in the 1970s. She played wild card women and he was usually the dull cop not to far from the star of the show. Albert Popwell who is in the first four "Dirty Harry" films in some capacity, is in another side road scene in this film as the guy who's car gets repossessed by Molly. Willian Schallert is another face that was everywhere on TV over the last fifty years. In this film he is the determined sheriff seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two of his deputies.

Back to our story. The thing that makes this such an effective film is that it does not draw attention to itself or try to explain too much. Except for some exposition spoken by Andy Robinson, we have to figure out what is going on by paying attention to the film. Charley seems to be plotting an escape, but it turns out that there is a hidden agenda in his machinations that only becomes clear as the story unfolds slowly in front of us. The tag like on the poster is that "When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!"  We just don't see that genius until the plot threads start coming together and what seemed a bone-head move earlier suddenly is revealed as part of a large plan that we were not privy to. 

After the bank robbery, the closest the film comes to an action scene is the climax where Varrick's deceptive plan is revealed and we get a car chase, plane crash and some explosions. More than the fireworks however, the best thing to watch is the way little pieces of the plot play out. Varrick knows better than to trust any of the mobsters, and he has to find a way to get away clean. It's great that he gets to use some old skills in the process. The way most of the tidbits we have been wondering about play out is very satisfying.

This is a film that I saw in theaters as a kid and probably did not appreciate as much as I do now. It was however a film I liked well enough to obtain on my favorite forgotten format. 

I clearly stole this image of the two film laser disc collection. Universal had a number of secondary materials they released as double features to justify the cost of your investment. As DVDs came to the market place and the Laserdisc stopped production, I transferred a number of my discs to the DVD format and created my own packaging for the cover and the disc. This is the format I used to view the film for this post. 
"Charley Varrick" is a great 70s thriller, high on style and character but low on action. If you like these kinds of movies, and why would you be reading this if you did not?, let me recommend that you either discover or re-discover the genius of Charley Varrick.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Yesterday



"Yesterday" is a delightful little fantasy, that has little on it's mind but everything in it's heart. It is a love story about the music of the Beatles and the love of music in general. There is also a romantic element that weaves through the main story that dramatizes some of the same ideas that are being told in the main tale. Ultimately however, it is merely a fantasy film, designed for audiences that care both about music and the nostalgia of history.

The premise is pretty well summed up in the trailer. After an accident that results from a worldwide blackout, Jack Malik, an unsuccessful, struggling musician, is the only person who seems to know the Beatles. It's as if Thanos snapped his fingers and just wiped out part of cultural history, rather than half the population of the planet. Like most fantasy, you have to be willing to go along with the conceit and not worry about the logic behind it, because there isn't any. Much like a body switch comedy from the 1980s, we don't need to know why the phenomena occurred, we just need to handle the consequences. Jack remembers the songs and lyrics of the greatest pop music ever written and starts reproducing it for himself. Himesh Patel has a face that conveys defeat and frustration at every turn. His failure to connect with an audience outside his circle of friends is sapping his spirit and draining the passion he has for music. The chance to make a success out of his life by claiming the music of the Beatles as his own offers him a conflict that we as an audience can sympathize with. He becomes the greatest plagiarist in history, but he does so in the most guileless way imaginable. He just wants to play the songs. Success is great but he knows he is riding on the work of someone else, but those people will never be able to produce the material themselves.

Jack's school chum Ellie, has been his manager for all of the time he was not a success, and she steps aside for his career to advance because she can't really represent him effectively, without altering her life too much. Lily James plays Ellie and she is lovely and sweet and as a secondary character asks on multiple occasions, why have the two of them never gotten together.  Much like a time travel story, "Yesterday" wants us to think about the opportunities that we missed along the line and ponder why circumstances end up as they do. Jack and Ellie seem perfect for each other but after years in the "friends" zone, they are making choices that are fall back positions. Ellie withdraws to a new relationship and Jack pursues fame and fortune with the Beatles songs.

The music is of course terrific, we can thank Lennon and McCartney for that. Patel performs the songs with passion, and although he has a good voice, it is clear why he never made it on his own. The songs he writes are not bad, they simply lack the magic that came from the musical genius of the fab four. When people hear the tunes and the lyrics, they are captivated by the music, not the musician.  Success feels hollow for Jack because he has lost his friend and the songs are not his own. There is a building plot point that concerns whether he will be revealed as a fraud, and in fact he has a nightmare about that possibility. The resolution to this plot line is a good twist and it has one of the most satisfying "what if" scenes that a film like this wants us to speculate on.

It is interesting to think about the way the world might be different if the music of the Beatles did not exist. There are references to some contemporary artists who certainly were influenced by the Beatles but they seem to be unaffected by the disappearance of  John, Paul, George and Ringo. While this might make a logical movie feel off completely, this is a fantasy, and the story gets by simply by acknowledging one influence that would be altered, instead of making it as widespread as it clearly would be. That reference was my biggest laugh in the film, it also opens up another line on music for Jack to take advantage of if he keeps going.

The music business is also lampooned a great deal. Kate McKinnon arrives to manage Jack's career and make him rich, but mostly make the record company richer. Her greed based, heartless music executive is a stereotype that we will recognize, but she also knows how to manipulate Jack by using his own momentary short comings to guilt him into her way of thinking. Ed Sheeran plays himself, and he cheerfully goes along with sending up his own image. In fact, he may be a little too brutal on himself for comfort.

Screenwriter Richard Curtis takes a premise he created with another writer and makes some magic that will be very recognizable to fans of "Love Actually" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral".  It is possible that he is mining the same material from his own film from 2013, "About Time", which has many of the same fantasy elements and dilemmas. This movie is directed by Danny Boyle, who will not be doing James Bond but still can end up on an anticipated list of movies that I want to see. "Yesterday" is a good sized hit for the kind of movie that it is. I think it plays to an older audience because of the Beatles connection, but the young stars probably have added to it's appeal for a younger audience. If the Beatles music means nothing to you, feel free to skip this movie. But if you are a part of the population with the good sense to know how important that music is, I suspect you will enjoy the film in spite of some flaws along the way. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Lambcast 1989 Film Draft



Please take a moment to go to the poll on the LAMB site and vote for my slate of films.

While I did not get my first choice, I think I have the most solid collection of films of any people on the podcast.


  • Field of Dreams, the Kevin Costner male weepy is a classic and has some terrific actors in it.
  • Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton's second and last outing as James Bond. A Great villain and some tortured 007 personality.
  • When Harry Met Sally, even if you don't like Romantic comedies, you will like this movie that was the template for the 1990s romantic comedies that followed. Nora Ephron was awesome.
  • Glory, IMHO the Best Film of 1989.
  • UHF, a silly comedy but it stars "Weird" Al Yankovic.

Click the picture or this link and vote today. The alternatives are just too sad to accept. 

Lawrence Of Arabia [Again] 2019 Visit



As is tradition on this site and in our house, when "Lawrence of Arabia" is available on the big screen, we are available to see it. Having sat through an earthquake the previous night to watch "Jaws", nothing was likely to disturb us from spending time with David Lean's masterpiece.

I have written about this film a number of times. There is a link here to a video blog for a screening in 2013. Here is a link to a screening at the Cinerama Dome. At this spot you can read about our visit two years ago, seeing the print that was run on Saturday. Finally, there was a post I did on the many versions of Lawrence that I own on home video and some other tidbits.

The term Fan is derived from the word fanatic, so maybe this is an apt description of us and our love for this movie. For this post, I thought I'd try a perspective suggested by the author of the beautiful coffee table book that came with the blu ray package. Jeremy Arnold was at our screening, and he was there previously when the American Cinematique introduced the 70mm print that they now own and lovingly care for. His introduction talked about the enigma of T.E. Lawrence but also of the film about him. He said that there are many ways to experience the movie and some people never get past the sensory. So what I will do here is approach three of those paths, and hopefully find some interesting things to highlight about the movie.

I think it is fitting to start with the sensory, since it is the major selling point of the film for most cinema fans. "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of the most visually splendid  stories ever committed to celluloid.  The opening titles are shot from a static position overhead as Lawrence readies his motorbike for that last fateful trip. You might think a static shot of a mundane activity would be boring after a few seconds, but the lighting, the colors and the music make it compelling and the angle gives us enough to see what is happening but it still keeps the central figure as a mystery. Ultimately, the film is about the mystery of T.E. Lawrence and this simply foreshadows the whole point of the picture.

Everywhere you look in the rest of the movie are fascinating landscapes, revealing face profiles, and composition of shots that even an amateur like me can recognize as spectacular. The famous edit by Lean and Anne V. Coates, moving from a lighted match to a sunrise over a harsh desert, continues to inspire no matter how many times you see it. Omar Sharif's slow reveal as a distant figure in a landscape is also iconic. Even watching Lawrence brood over a problem, under the night sky while silently being trailed by the two boys who become his servants for the crossing of the desert later, is compelling to watch. The sensory experience is added to by the music at every point. The score by Maurice Jarre is like an earworm that is soft at times and thundering in the right spot. Listening to the tentpoles in King Faisal's tent,creak as the winds of the desert cause the tent to shift slightly, illustrate the way that sound adds to the sensory experience in subtle ways as well as the obvious explosions and thundering hoofs.

Everyone can experience these things for themselves and if you pay enough attention you will find hundreds more of those moments in the movie. The emotional reaction to the film is a second path by which to experience it, and Lawrence provides a banquet of emotional moments to satisfy all palates. Humor is everywhere in the movie, although no one would describe it as a comedy. Lawrence is introduced to us in the British Military headquarters in Cairo, referring to each of his fellow soldiers by both their first and last names, spoken in a deliberate manner meant to exaggerate his mannerisms. It is not a joke but it is a funny way to learn how he speaks and thinks without having to have exposition. There is an abundance of visual humor in the film as well. We all laugh when we realize that the reason he is admiring the knife that is part of his new regalia, is not simply that it is new and unique, it is that he can see himself in the reflection and his vanity is revealed accidentally.

Lawrence's proximity to death is all the more tragic because of the three deaths he is most closely associated with in the film. In the screening on Saturday, Jeremy Arnold surveyed the packed house to see how many we experiencing Lawrence for the first time. Amazingly, nearly half the audience raised their hand to indicate that this was their maiden experience with the movie. I know they were not lying because when it is revealed who it is that Lawrence must execute to keep the tribes from warring with each other rather than the Turks, there was a loud collective gasp from the audience. When Daud is lost to the desert sands, there were some sobs that were audible, and when Lawrence has to end the life of his other associate after an explosives accident, the silence of shock and dread hangs in the air.

Emotional jubilation is also present in the film, as Lawrence rescues Gasim from the desert, or as a bunch of grapes from Damascus are delivered and we know that success is in his grasp. Of course all of these points have a counterpoint and the movie is never short on finding ways to emotionally evoke a response from us. We will feel disgust as the clammy hands of the Turkish Bey examine the fair skin of Lawrence when he is about to be tortured. Anger and hatred  will also come to our hearts when we see the village left behind a retreating Turkish column, or the grin in the face of the man holding Lawrence's hands down as the beating begins. There is such an overload of emotional moments in the film that I'm sure a whole book could be composed to cover it, and you would still only scratch the surface.

The last trail suggested by Mr. Arnold's introduction, is the intellectual/spiritual path that the film takes in telling Lawrence's story. He was a passionate man who also knew to control that passion in pursuit of his vision of an independent Arabia. We can't tell if he is motivated by his admiration of the Arab people or his disdain for some elements of their culture. He embraced the life of the Bedouin and rejected it simultaneously.  He was clever and boldly foolish. In other words, his life was a variety of dichotomies that make him even more enigmatic than before we have seen the film. His vision of a future for the Middle east was at variance with those of his country, but also with those whom he lead and loved.

He defied the conventional wisdom of the Arabs, "Nothing is written", but also repeatedly proved that their fatalism was well earned. From the beginning, he was described by people at his funeral as the most extraordinary man they ever knew, but there was always a hedge statement that followed, which revealed that no one was quite certain how to classify him. The intellectual puzzle that he was is not really solved by this movie, but it's attractiveness and magnetism is intensified by the film. Once again, I am in awe of the scope of this movie, not simply as a piece of cinema, but as an historical mediation on a figure that rode the whirlwind of history.


And let's just add that the lead performance is responsible for much of the success that those three paths managed to get us through. Peter O'Toole makes all of it feel accurate, and real, regardless of where the truth lies. 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

2019 Annual Jaws Event Jaws/Hard Ticket to Hawaii

Screenshot of the Facebook Page of the Egyptian Theater Last Night

As you can see, the fanatics were out last night to see the movie that many of us contend is the greatest film of all time. There were a lot of enthusiasts and a fine time was had by all with a brief interlude.

Every time I see Jaws,  which is usually three or four times a year, I pick up a little something extra. Last night for instance, I noticed the floral style center piece on Ellen Brody's dining room table for the very first time.

The screening was an actual 35 mm print, struck from a wet gate negative [whatever that means] and frankly, it looked spectacular. The sound in a theater is also impressive and you can catch snippets of dialogue in the background that will be mostly lost even with a sophisticated home theater set up.

Nothing has changed in my evaluation of the film. It is Spielberg's greatest accomplishment, even with the somewhat limited practical effects of the mechanical shark. Ben Gardner still manages to make me jump, even if it has happened a hundred times before, I'm not kidding, this is the film I have seen the most in my life and it is at a minimum a hundred times.

The brief interlude I mentioned before was the 7.1 Earthquake that happened in Southern California last night. Just as Hooper is arriving at the Brody residence for dinner, the Earth moved substantially.
The above is a small piece of plaster that fell from the ceiling on me during the quake. I did not see any big chunks, just some flakes here and there, this is maybe a 1/4 of an inch in size.

A few people got up and left the auditorium for a few minutes, most of us just covered our heads and rode it out. The projectionist stopped the film, rolled it back to the start of the scene, and after a ten minute break for us to collect our thoughts, the film started again. Still the biggest cheers in the audience were for Quint's entrance at the council meeting and his exit from the Orca. The movie continues to work.

Before the film ran, the Cinematique played a bunch of Jaws related material, including trailers for all the sequels, several inferior knock offs, and some ads that used shark themed concepts to sell products from both 1975 and 2019. We also got a Baby Shark Sing along video.

Hard Ticket to Hawaii 


I had never heard of this movie before, and I was only vaguely aware of Writer/Director Andy Sidaris, but now having experienced it, I am a fan. It is as cheesy as the trailer suggests and just as entertaining. Everybody seems to be having fun making this ridiculous secret agent film. Come on, it's not enough that the snake is venomous, but it is also contaminated with chemicals fro cancer ridden rats that it ate. 

Star Dona Spier was present to introduce the film and she signed books before the movie. I wish I'd gone out and bought one and had it signed, but not having seen the film I was hesitant. Now I will just live with regret. Also present was Arlene Sidaris, the producer of this movie and widow of the legendary film maker. She had some nice words about the movie and they introduced one of the behind the scenes tech crew who was in attendance at the screening. 

This film is not politically correct in anyway. Andy Sidaris lampoons his previous role as a Wide World of Sports director, with the most insane interview of a quarterback you are likely to see on screen, and it has nothing to do with the story, it's just funny in a pre-social justice world perspective. 

Gloriously insane characters and hilariously awkward dialogue make this a must see for fans of cheepo action films. Unfortunately it has already been covered on "Exploding Helicopter" , I wish I had been the one to join Will in talking about it.  


Wild Rose



There are dozens of movies about aspiring singers and bands that are worthy for you to see. Some are set in a different time, many in a different place but most of them that work, have a heart. Earlier this year, we got a biopic of Elton John and it is terrific, I think however, from an emotional perspective at least, it has been surpassed by this Scottish tale of a woman who feels that she is in the wrong place but the right voice. I worry when I see superlatives being bandied about in the trailers, because they can set your expectation up for disappointment. No need to worry here, Jessie Buckley is all that has been advertised and I hope she is singing the Oscar nominated song on the Academy Awards, right before she picks up her own award.

For forty years, I have asked students to share something about themselves in the first week of class. Overwhelmingly, one of the personal tidbits that gets dropped is their love for some kind of music. If I were to paraphrase a sentence that I heard nearly a half dozen times every semester it would be..."I like all kinds of music...except country". Now there are plenty of students who did love country music, but I always found it fascinating how many try to distance themselves from an art form that seems so accessible to me. Maybe they subscribe to the stereotypes of the old songs, and don't want to be seen as morose or too conventional. This is the sort of film that ought to convince them to see and listen to the world a bit differently. Country music as it is portrayed here is not dull, and it certainly applies to a youth culture as much if not more than an older generation.

Two films jumped into my head as I was watching this, "The Commitments" and "Sing Street". Both featured music but very different kinds of music. Each story has a different theme, friendship, love, responsibility. Despite these difference, you may notice the story beats are very similar. After we are introduced to the characters, they reveal how talented they are, they overcome initial obstacles, they fail at the next obstacle, but ultimately redeem themselves with the promise of a future obstacle that they will be well equipped to manage. All stories will have some of these types of cliches, it's unavoidable in fictional storytelling, these are the dramatic turns that make us follow the events. A movie succeeds when it makes these cliches feel real and presents them in a dramatically fulfilling manner. "Wild Rose" manages to do this just fine.

Rose as played by Jessie Buckley, is a headstrong woman who has great talent and ambition but has also made some bad decisions and lacks a sense of responsibility. She needs to grow up. The question concerns how she will manage to do that. Can she be the person she needs to be for her family, and still be the person she wants to be for herself? That is a question that all of us have to answer and it does not always turn out well. We can see that Rose wants to do right, but she does not know how to. She has the raw talent to succeed but lacks the discipline to make things work out the way she wants. Along the way she has a couple of allies and she doesn't realize how much they want her to do the right things as well. Sophie Okenedo is a sympathetic employer who is moved by the music and the passion that Rose shares. Julie Walters is the Mother who wants her daughter to grow up and be the person she is capable of being, but she is tired of being an enabler for the bad choices her daughter is making.

The music is amazing in this film. Of course there are a variety of country standards and some obscure songs that pre-date the film, but there are a number of original songs written for the film, and all of the ones performed by Rose in the film were recorded by Jessie Buckley who has an amazing voice.


This will be on my end of the year list. Three chords and the truth.

Spider Man: Far From Home



In the post Avengers, "Infinity War" world, the superheros are going to be faced with threats that will have to be inventive, compelling and for the moment, short term. I don't really know how you build a long term storyline without the universal destruction suggested by Thanos and that story is now history. The approach that the caretakers of the Marvel Universe are taking, seems to be the right one. They are taking time building stories around the remaining heroes and allowing them to be at the center of their own tales. Here and there will be connections to the large universe of super heroes, but for the moment they will bask in the spotlight alone. "Spider Man: Far From Home" does exactly this. Peter Parker and his complicated relationships are the main thrust of the story.

The after effects of the "snap" are briefly discussed as the plot unfolds, but there is virtually no impact of the five year gap between the Earth's non blipped residents and those who blipped back. Two or three visual jokes that also make no sense but are fun anyway, help set a more light hearted tone for the film. Moving the action to Europe helps the movie feel fresher than had it remained in the States and there are some more opportunities for cross cultural humor as well. Even with the shadow of the Infinity War hanging over the planet, life seems to go on. With just a few tips of the hat to Iron Man, Spider Man takes the lead and reluctantly seems to be the lynch pin character for future interwoven multi-universe situations.

The enigmatic "Mysterio", shows up to battle elemental monsters that have supposedly destroyed the Earth of his dimension and now threaten our own home world. Nick Fury wants Spider Man to step up and lead when it comes to handling new threats and Tony Stark has left a mini version of Ultron, with the acronym E.D.I.T.H., to help out. Once again, Stark's ingenious is the source of  conflict in the MCU. Peter has to choose what kind of life or leadership role he is going to follow, and of course it will not be an easy choice or one without complications. "Mysterio" is portrayed by the always enjoyable Jake Gyllenhaal, himself a one-time candidate for the Spider Man role. Frankly, you will be aware that a twist is coming from the start of the story, how could you not expect it after so many previous experiences. When it arrives, there is a three minute or so narrative sequence that tries to make sense of it all. There are a dozen dangling strings from other MCU films that are tied together to create the new threat. I think the retcon that happened in "Spider Man: Homecoming" was a lot clearer and made more sense. If you look at this one too closely, it may not hold up as well. Especially since the villain acknowledges that Nick Fury is the most paranoid man on the planet.

The narrative here reminds me of the Happy Potter film "The Half Blood Prince". So much of the background is taken up by the romantic lives of our protagonists that it may sometimes feel like a different movie. There are however a sufficient number of tie ins to the technology and plot to make those "romance" points still relevant to the main story. MJ and Ned are both at risk down the line and it works to make the threat to them more meaningful when the ominous agenda of the villain reveals itself. I do think that the bifurcated nature of the antagonist is a bit problematic, and the self awareness of his own delusional role in the Stark legacy means that he needs to be a pretty good actor. The film is a little meta when it is disclosed how we are all being fooled. maybe all the technicians who create these movies need to have a bit of glory but this was a weird way of showing us behind the curtain.

That curtain however is still pretty dazzling as the action sequences and special effects continue to show that people are working at the top levels to make these movies as believable as they can.  I also loved the attempt to divert attention from Spider Man by inventing a pseudonym for the character and then referring back to it in several spots, hilarious. The idea of Happy and May makes me giggle a bit and hope for the best for both of them. Happy gets more to do in this film than any of the previous MCU films his character has appeared in, and May, re-imagined as a younger but still mature woman, finally pays off. Good for Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei. If you stick around for the credit sequences that have become a hallmark of these movies, you will get a long awaited cameo that is a great surprise. There is also a reveal that makes the meta theme of illusion even more meta. I'm not sure it was necessary, but it does tie in to some other MCU plotlines and its is a lot of fun. More than half the audience at out screening had already left when these two bits came up, and I don't understand how people can do that, knowing that there are some punch lines or gut punches coming.

Saying that "Spider Man: Far From Home " is not top self MCU in no way is meant to diminish the entertainment value of the film. You should enjoy yourself immensely. It is simply a fact that with so many variations of these characters and the number of movies they have appeared in, we inevitably will make comparisons. Tom Holland continues to work as a youthful Peter Parker even as he grows older playing the character, maybe he was in a real blip event. The other high school kids provide some humorous diversions, and I thought the teachers were quite funny but I can see some slap stick that may put others off. The first half of the film feels like it is exactly what it turns out to be, but the second half makes that pay off. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Men In Black International




I did not have high hopes for this film, the trailers did not seem very interesting and the concept feels a little old. I happened to be in Austin this weekend and I wanted to see a movie in one of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters and this was the one that was starting at the right time so it ended up being selected simply because of lucky timing. As it turned out it was very entertaining and there is nothing the makers of the film should hang their heads about. I think the lack of success is mostly franchise fatigue and an abundance of similar products in the marketplace.

Chris Hemsworth is still trying to break out as a star outside of the MCU, and you can see why he might choose a part like this. Although I liked him very much in some of the other films he has made, his charisma is still stuck in the God of Thunder role he has owned for a decade now. Tessa Thompson is re-matched with him and they have pretty good chemistry but neither character brings the persona the two original stars did to their parts. It seems you need more than a black suit and a lot of CGI to make this concept work.

Fortunately, there are some funny bits of dialogue and some visual gags that will keep things interesting, but it can never match the charm that the first movie had. If I were ranking however, it would certainly beat MIB 2 which had very little going for it. The concept here suggests there is a traitor in MIB. The trailer makes it seem as if the "Hive", the supposed antagonist in the story is replicating MIB agents and replacing them. That is misleading, although there is a pretty obvious character to suspect, not because of the script but because casting demands that you make use of someone of that stature in an appropriate manner.


The shift of the story to Europe is fine and it allows for a few ethnocentric jokes at the expense of Americans, the French, and the British. There is also a sequence set in North Africa and the Mediterranean, so we get a pretty good travelogue as we go through the acts in the film. There may be a little too much of the cutie pie alien in the story, but I did not find him annoying, just a little obvious as to his role function as comic relief. Rebecca Ferguson, Liam Neesen and Emma Thompson are also in the film, and they have slightly better roles. Everybody seems to have a letter code name, which would leave you to believe that there can't be more than 26 MIB agents at any given time, but that is clearly not the case. There must be some other explanation.






So MIB International is not an important movie or essential to any comic book narrative, but it is an entertaining couple of hours that is not too taxing on the brain. If you still like all the CGI transformations, gadgets and aliens, then you should have a pretty good time.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Late Night



Before I talk about the film, let me discuss a subject that has come up recently for which this movie was used as a prime example. The claim is that comedy on the big screen is dying. There was some data analytics applied and shows that comedies in the U.S. went from 25% of the Box office in 2009 to 8% last year, with only one breaking the $100 million mark. Several recent misfires at the box office have also been mentioned, including "Long Shot", POMS, and "Booksmart".  The culprit according to the articles I have read, is on-line streaming. People have warmed to the idea that comedy is for home consumption and spectacle is for the theater. "Late Night" appears to be another in a line of failures to launch at the box office. I can't dismiss the theory out of hand, but I can say that one of the reasons "Late Night" faltered is marketing. I saw no print advertising, or Television promotion for this movie and only spotty info on the web. If you want an example of how lazy the effort was to get people into a theater, look at the poster below.  Amazon Studios treated the film as one of their streaming productions that they deign to put into theaters. The new system of film releases and the rise of on-line film streaming may very well change the culture in ways we are uncertain about. This movie however is being written off and that's a pity.

This is basically "The Devil Wears Prada" set in the world of late night comedy on television rather than in the fashion industry. That film features an older actress playing a stern figure who needs an assist from some new blood. Emma Thompson plays the Meryl Streep part and Mindy Kaling gets to be Anne Hathaway. Which is fine since she wrote the usually witty screenplay herself. Thompson's character is stuck in the mud and does not seem willing to deal with it because of her difficult personality. She also has a home life that is complicated by an unwell souse and a lack of other friends and family. She tells the jokes well and conveys the gyro-scoping professional conflicts well. As the over confident and then overwhelmed neophyte writer on the comedy staff, Kaling gives herself a wide range of emotions to play but it is a little schizophrenic at times as to whether she is cock sure or cockamamie. 

All comedies will have weak moments in them and this is no exception. The trash bag and trash can jokes you can see in the trailer are indicative of some of the weaknesses. This is not a slapstick and putting those in detracts from the more clever things that are working in the film. The near incestuous elitism of the writing staff is mocked very effectively both verbally and visually. The insular nature of the room does seem to be a problem in the late night shows woes but clearly the bigger problem is the attitude of the host. We are supposed to believe that a quarter of a century into the digital age of media, and all of the comedic life of the character, Kate, the host of the show, doesn't make jokes or references to this environment. That is a big disbelief to overcome. It's easy to see the perspective of Kaling as a comedy writer struggling in the monochromatic cultural canvas she has had to work in, but even old timers like Leno and Letterman understood that comedy has to flow from the events of the real world. Twitter, You Tube and Facebook are where that world is being consumed these days. So the premise is a bit smug to start with.

It is also a little inconsistent to mock a modern comedian for the use of poop jokes as you are in the process of making them yourself. Kaling is at least brave enough to include a reasonable retort to a feminist argument made by the host toward a member of the male writing staff, even though it gets dismissed not with an argument but by resorting to being in a position of power. The power dynamic is dysfunctional not because of anyone's skin color or gender, but because of their accomplishment and that seems to undermine some of the themes that she is trying to make in the script. For a film with the goal of being subversive, it is conventional right down to the tacked on, though sublte romance in the conclusion.

If it sounds like I am being overly critical, I just want to point out those things that stood in the way of everything else that worked so well. Kaling's character is funny as heck and the situations are usually humorous and accurate. Thompson is especially good and if Meryl deserved her nomination for "Prada", then if there is justice, Emma will be getting her certificate of participation early next year as well. This is an experience that would be well served by sharing it with a theater full of strangers willing to laugh out loud. I did several times but it is hard for something to be contagious when the theater feels like an isolation ward with very few patients.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Toy Story 4



The most unasked for movie of a series becomes the most essential film of the year.

You know that when this film was announced, everybody said "whaaat? We already have the perfect conclusion to the Toy Story Series, we don't need a return visit to screw it all up." Then the teaser spots were weird, and the new main character is a plastic fork? You gotta be kidding, right? Well leave it up to Pixar to get it right in the end. They usually know what they are doing and this film might give you the confidence to even feel a Toy Story 5 could be justified.

Many of the same themes that were covered in the first films are raised here as well. All of us have a need to be needed. Maslow seems to be right in this regard, even when it comes to the toys. From early on, Woody has been the key character in the adventures of the Toys. He is a fussbudget with a need for control and a strong desire to be at the top of the toy pile heap. He is so likable that we overlook his selfishness and jealousy. In the end he seems to over come these faults for the greater good. He has been a leader mostly by example in the most recent films, although his need for control does put him in conflict with other characters from time to time. "Toy Story 4" shows us a Woody who has become less relevant than he would prefer. It's not that Bonnie, his new kid dislikes him, it's as simple as her needs are different and he becomes a side character in her play. Even so, Woody feels the drive to protect Bonnie and make sure she is happy, because that's what a toy's purpose is. Protecting Bonnie's emotional state however may not be in the best interests of anybody, including Bonnie.

Woody has become a surrogate Helicopter parent. Striving to placate Bonnie by restraining "Forky" and hovering over every little tear that Bonnie sheds, regardless of the cost to others. The theme of the "Lost" toys and what happens to them becomes a threat and a wish fulfillment simultaneously. When Woody and Forky encounter some other toys that have been rejected, we are obliged to ask ourselves some hard questions. Is it better to persevere in the face of permanent failure or should we choose a new path covered with uncertainty and the potential for happiness or disaster?  Toys choose both routes in this film and we generally see satisfying results although there is sadness in those choices.

After encountering a benevolent character who turns into an evil antagonist in the previous film, our hero Woody faces almost the reverse situation in this film. Gaby Gabby is a doll that seems malevolent from the beginning. Let's face it, her team consists of ventriloquist dummies without a voice, maybe the most terrifying thing this side of clowns. She wants something from Woody that he does not want to give up, and she uses some extreme techniques to get it. In a twist that only a group as talented as those at Pixar could achieve, we feel differently about this character toward the end of the story. She and Woody share the same need, but Woody has had more than his portion of that need while Gaby never has. There are two big emotional turns that almost certainly will moisten your eyes, and they involve a character that we have been suspicious of from the get go.

It's not a spoiler to mention that Bo Peep returns to the story and her character is a lot more essential to the plot than when she was nervously biting her lip and hoping for Woody to succeed in the first film. Although you can never free yourself from the need to be wanted, you can control the level of need and satisfy it in different ways, and that is the path that Bo offers to us and to Woody. We have already learned that the Toys have different personalities, I suppose if we dwell too long on some of the existential issues raised in these movies, we will need a lot more pot. Let's just say that the existence of a character and then it's non-existence are pretty deep concepts for a movie that is aimed at children first. Forky asks the question, "Why am I alive?" and the movie tries to make a case for the answer. Even a character as feckless as Forky, can grow in emotional needs, and so can the other toys as well.

Of the new character introduced, the most fun are Duke Kaboom, Ducky and Bunny. There is not really an arc for their stories, those characters exist to enrich the environment of the main conflict and they manage to do so in the most amusing of ways. If there is a future to the Toy Story franchise, it should be in new characters like these, invested in new problems rather than recycling old ones. That's not a knock on the current film, it's just a pragmatic suggestion.

Without undermining the close of the original trilogy of "Toy Story" films, "Toy Story 4" manages to entertain us and move us in the right ways. Once again our expectations have been subverted, thankfully is a manner that should leave most fans happy that Disney/Pixar went to this well one more time. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Shaft (2019)



I like music and movie themes are always a favorite, but you can count on one hand the number of movie themes that can single-handedly rescue a movie from mediocrity and make you care about something that is average. Whatever residuals Lalo Schiffrin gets for Mission Impossible, he has earned ten times over for that movie series. Isaac Hayes is gone but his estate should get a big check for making these movies work as well as they do. As much credit as I want to give to the theme song however, there is one other essential component that also fills the film with the value that it has, the lead actor. In the 1970s Richard Roundtree became a star playing the part of the cool private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks, and he swaggered through three films magnificently. I don't really know why it took 19 years to get back to the character after the 2000 version of the film, because the lead actor then and now makes the theme song real.

Samuel L. Jackson may not have matinee idol good looks like Roundtree did, but he has all the attitude and charisma needed to power a movie like this. I have seen Jackson act. In "Pulp Fiction", "Jackie Brown" and "Jungle Fever", he is a real character with quirks unique to each story, but in a lot of films he plays "Samuel L. Jackson" the poet laureate of the "F" word and the bad ass with a mouth that won't quit. "Shaft" gives him the chance to use those basic cartoon skills in a pretty standard action film, but elevate that action to something more entertaining than gunfights and car chases. Jackson makes the movie he is in fun because he is having fun being in it. This is his fourth film released this year and it's only June.

The twist in this version is that Shaft is passing the baton so to speak to his son, an MIT nerd who does data for the FBI. Jessie Usher plays J.J. Shaft as if he is a newb in the big world because he has stepped out from behind his computer screen and stepped into Harlem proper. There is a lengthy backstory about the relationship, or lack thereof, between father and son. Shaft doesn't really know his child and finding out his faults and strengths are the main beats of the story. The movie is filled with offhand putdowns and double takes as Shaft tries to connect with his long lost son. Regina hall gets a female role that is much more substantial than any other in the franchise history, although it is still mostly a side part and primarily for comedic purposes. As a helicopter Mom, who never really stopped loving the man who was her son's father, she has kept the two apart, so naturally she is aghast when they reconnect. Usher let's his wardrobe do most of the acting in the first part of the movie but as he and Jackson begin to settle into a relationship, he is much more effective.

The plot deals with the usual investigation of a death that is actually connected to illegal drug trafficking. Because the story is in a hurry to get Junior and Dad back together, it is a bit rushed, and I'll be damned if I can explain why the victim was killed in the first place, but none of that matters. What matters is that there are insults, badass behavior and some fun fight scenes. Director Tim Story does not have a track record that inspires much faith in an action film. His two Fantastic Four Movies are not very popular among the comic book geeks. I don't really know his comedies, having skipped them entirely. He does seem to understand the milieu of  urban comedy and that all works in his favor because this is the Shaft movie that is supposed to be funny. There were occasional lines in the other films that would amuse but clearly this movie deserves it's classification as a comedy on IMDB.

One final note, this movie also features Richard Roundtree in the last quarter of the film. In the
previous version he was supposedly Uncle John Shaft, and the part was a brief cameo. The producers made a wise decision to make his role more central to the story and characters and it gives us a lot more to care about and laugh at as well. "Shaft 2019" may not be the classic that the original film was, but it is an entertaining night at the theater (or in front of your TV if you are not in the U.S.), so enjoy it and don't think to hard about it. Just let the song wash over you like a warm memory of awesomeness past, and listen to Jackson go off, you should be fine.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Aladdin (2019)



The long daggers have been out for this movie since it was announced. How dare Disney remake "Aladdin", how dare Will Smith get cast as the Genie, What the hell is Guy Richie doing as the director of this movie?  The purists were waiting with their skepticism and animus and you could here snarky comments everywhere. The same criticisms that have been made by people who hated on "Beauty and the Beast", "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dumbo".  While admittedly the last two were misfires, "Beauty and the Beast" managed to catch fire at the box office and please a lot of fans of that movie. "The Jungle Book" also managed to overcome early doubts and be a critical as well as commercial success. So the question now is which category is this film going to end up in, Disney Magic pile or Tim Burton tinkering wreck? ...I'm going to make you wait a little while longer to find out what I thought. First, I have an answer to a question that many have asked, why is Disney on a remake kick.?

Obviously it is ultimately about money.  Disney is a corporation that employs thousands, has millions of investors, and is the largest movie studio in the world right now. Before the mid eighties and after the death of founder Walt Disney, the studio suffered a long nearly fallow period as a film business. They put out family films that were cookie cutter product with a limited vision, and the new animation projects like "Robin Hood, The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron" were creatively weak. The company had relied on their seven year marketing of the vault films to keep the studio afloat. So what if "The Rescuers" under-performs, we have Pinocchio to play in the summer. When you have a golden goose in the cupboard dropping eggs every seven to ten years, you can get a little complacent. It was actually when the dreaded corporate types like Michael Eisner and Jeffery Wells participated in storming the Magic Kingdom, that such complacency was smothered. There was one other problem however, technology. The home video revolution that came about with the video tape recorder put the lid on the potential of these movies to be evergreens, at least in the theater. As the classic animated movies were released on home video, a new revenue stream was created but at the expense of the old one. The old platform would not sustain itself on product that people could own and watch at home, so new product has to fill the theatrical chute. We got live action remakes of "The Jungle Book" in 1994 and "101 Dalmatians" in 1996. These set the template for a remake, tell the same story but do so differently. The biggest worries most people have about the upcoming "Lion King" remake is that it will be a shot for shot reproduction. The trick however is to give us the familiar, while also making it unique enough to draw in an audience. Does "Aladdin" walk the tightrope? I'd say yes.

There are some important key differences between the animated film and this live-action version. Princess Jasmine is a much more assertive character in this telling of the tale. She does not just want to choose who to marry, she wants to be Sultan herself. Aladdin is a thief, but he is one that has some scruples and those are emphasized more in his relationship to Jasmine. Instead of a buffoon, the Sultan is an over protective father and is under the spell of the vizier Jaffar from early on. Jaffar's plans include an expansion of military power against neighboring countries, but the loyalty of the palace soldiers is to the Sultan. Some of this is ladled on to make the story more adult but it also makes some of the character actions more understandable. The biggest difference is the Genie himself. Robin Williams brilliant comedy riffs can't be replicated but the Genie has to have a fun and friendly relationship to the title character and those have to fit the actor who portrays him. Will Smith has been devoting the last seven years to films that don't play to his comic strengths but rather his acting skill, and he has been hit or miss. The role of Genie gives him a chance to put on the jocular persona he was known for and make it work as part of the story. Also, he can sing and he dances a little. From the early reaction to film clips, you'd have thought his CGI appearance was amateurish and either you wanted him blue or you hated the idea of him actually being blue, or both. The way it plays out in the film is perfectly fine and should satisfy the contradictory impulses of those critics.

We do get several numbers from the animated film repeated, but with enough differences to make the experience worth it. I was a little underwhelmed by the early clip of the "Prince Ali" song. On the small screen it loses it's impact and it looks a little silly. With the power of the full sized screen however, you can enjoy the expansiveness of the dance number an appreciate the more subtle CGi and concomitant use of real sets and actors in the sequence. "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" is filled with Will Smith moments rather than trying to replicate Williams version. In fact most of the songs had some nice updates on their lyrics and the comic bits from Smith and Richie are more universal than the now dated references from the 1992 film. One of the nice improvements is the way the narrator character from the animated film has been replaced and the new version integrates that character into the story.

I enjoyed the Bollywood style dancing and the gymnastics that are set throughout the film. Again, I saw several people disgruntled with the trailers but when things are seen in total they work pretty well. Guy Richie had some clever camera movements during the chase scenes and the travelogue moments are are interesting. I ended up being very pleased with the movie in spite of my own indifference. This came out three weeks ago and I was not in any hurry to see it, but now that I have, I wish I'd gone earlier, it's very entertaining and it feeds the beast.