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. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Dead Don't Die

I'm going to be frank, I have never seen a film by Jim Jarmusch before. He has made a dozen films I have heard of and several that never crossed my radar. It was clear from the aesthetic I could see in promotional materials that his style is idiosyncratic and idyllic. I cannot say how representative the current film is of his movies, but I can say that if "The Dead Don't Die" is typical, I don't think I made a bad choice by avoiding his movies. It's not that the film is bad, it is simply not in sync with the way I want my cinema experience to play out. I heard high praise for many of his other movies and if I come across them I might stop down and give them a try, but I will not be seeking them out.

The trailer for this film suggests a comedy full of dry wit and zombie action. They have done a good job selling this movie to an unsuspecting audience. The film's sensibility is very different from the way it plays in the promotional material. This movie is slow moving, just like the zombies. The three main characters are so dead pan for most of the film that it is a relief when one of them finally shouts at another. This is the most passive group of police officers you will ever encounter. The zombie attacks are not particularly horrific, they are just perfunctory and slow. I suspect that what Jarmusch has done is made one of his character pieces and just hung it on the genre here to draw some interest. Well it worked, and now I have seen one of his movies.

Yes, it is a comedy, so you can expect some deconstruction of the genre as a way to develop humor, but it goes further than that. It feels as if the movie is mocking us for watching a horror film in the first place and then subverting our expectations of humor by isolating the jokes so far from anything else that is funny, that you may wonder if it really is supposed to be a comedy. There are so many "meta" moments in the film that feel like a put down rather than a wink or a nod. As the two police officers figure out what is going on by referencing the script and their lines, I began to feel left out rather than included in the joke. There are a few isolated laughs in the movie, but nothing is ever sustained for long and then there are huge passages of time where nothing seems to happen. Three kids driving in a car passing around an energy drink does nothing to enhance the story. Three other kids in a juvenile detention center appear several times in the movie and they do nothing interesting, have no relevance to the plot, and they disappear without any resolution. It certainly feels like something that would be part of an independent film project, but not the kind of independent film I'd want to go to.

The cast is one of the selling points of the film, it is large and packed with performers you might enjoy seeing on screen. The only ones who get much chance to do anything are Tilda Swinton and Adam Driver. In another one of those quirky moments that highlights that indeed the film maker himself is just a hipster from Cleveland, Swinton walks out of the story in an incongruous manner completely detached from the events of the story. The biggest laugh Adam Driver gets is when he shows up at a crime scene in his personal automobile. Meanwhile Steve Buscemi , has to play an exaggerated version of a Trump voter, Danny Glover finally is too old for this shit, and Carol Kane is a one word one joke cameo.

Maybe if you are a fan of the directors style, you will enjoy this film more than I did. I found the on the nose criticism of genre conventions to be off putting and the lack of pacing to be annoying. When the zombies do start to appear, the film picks up for half an hour or so, but then it meanders off onto paths that lead no where and a conclusion that is so self satisfying as to be a disappointment. That's right, zombie movies usually end on a down note, so let's ape that but make fun of it at the same time? I just didn't care anymore. Marketing may make this film Jarmusch's most successful box office result, but it is not a movie that will earn much love from those who see it under false expectations. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Islands in the Stream

I'm starting a new series that I hope to come back to on a regular basis. When I have a few of these entries I will put up a page with links to each one so they will be easy to catalog. There are several blog sites that do a very similar theme, forgotten films. I have participated on a few podcasts with one of my on-line friends talking about movies that fall into this category, and perhaps inspired by that, or simply my love for seventies nostalgia, I thought I would start off with this movie.

Islands in the Stream

This has nothing to do with the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit written by the Bee Gees, although some of the romantic themes in the song could apply to the events in the story if you look hard enough. It is based on a posthumously published work by Ernest Hemingway and features a character clearly based on Hemingway himself. Supposedly it was turned down by Steve McQueen but I can't imagine a more perfect choice for the part than George C. Scott.

The film is set in the Bahamas at the start of WWII. Most of the Caribbean Islands were still British possessions and as such were targets of German U-boat harassment. For the most part, the was is a distant irritation, on the Island here, the main war is an emotional one being fought by an iconoclastic artist and the various people in his life.  Thomas Hudson is a renown artist who has given up painting for industrial sculpture. He has retreated from the social scene he occupied at one point to live and work in relative isolation.

Scott as Hudson appears to be something of a misanthrope, in fact as he awaits the arrival of his sons for a summer visit, he actually won't even go to the plane to fetch them, even though it has been four years since he has seen them. The oldest boy is named after him, Tommy and he is played by future Die Hard White Night Hart Bochner.

Tommy and the youngest boy, Andrew are happy to see their father although they remember him as a stern and cranky man. The middle boy David is the one who has reservations and antagonism toward his father. He and Andrew are the children of Hudson's second wife, the best friend of his first wife that he still carries a torch for. David begins his visit with his father in a surly mood and at one point flails out during what was initially a fraternal pillow fight but turns into a moment of physical catharsis.  Instead of the stern patriarch, Hudson appears to be a patient man who recognizes that his own failings as a father are haunting his middle boy.

Reconciliation occurs through a test of physical stamina and mental will when  David hooks a large game fish on one of their boating expeditions. In what seems like a very macho Hemingway moment, the fish and the boy tussle for the father's respect. Scott conveys real emotional sympathy for the boy but understands his need to prove himself. The surprising resolution to the moment is the emotional heart of the movie.

There is an earlier scene where the chaos of the wold intrudes on the idyllic summer of the family. A British freighter is sunk off the shores of the island and debris as well as one human victim wash ashore on the beach near the artist's house. Hudson manages to keep the boys back away from the dead man but there is some powerful foreshadowing taking place here as he contemplates the fate of his children in a world at war. 

There are some locals that make up the crew that surrounds Thomas Hudson in his self imposed exile. David Hemmings plays Eddy, Tom's close friend and rum soaked partner in the fishing boat charter they apparently own. Eddy becomes a friend to the boys and the voice of gin stoked wisdom at times. His performance is a standout in the film as he conveys a pathetic but confoundingly tragic figure at the same time. Also on hand is Julius Harris as Joseph the Captain of the boat. Harris was an actor I discussed recently on a James Bond Podcast I hosted. His familiar face was a welcome addition and he plays a friendly supporting part rather than the bad guy in this one. 

After the interlude with the boys, there is a third act in the film featuring a reunification, at least briefly of Hudson with his first wife. This sets up the final segment where Hudson makes a commitment that he might have resisted before the summer with the kids and the moments with his true love. This is where the adventure element of the movie kicks in. The film does feel like a series of chapters in a book and it is organized that way for us as well. This may explain the reason that the film feels so satisfying to me, because like a lot of seventies movies, it is a thing unto itself. If you read the copy on the poster at the start of this post, you may laugh at the blatant attempt to market the film as something special. It feels old fashioned, even in 1977 when the film was released. However, it worked on me. This slow film about a man coping with a world he made and one that he has avoided, hooked me with it's cinematography, sentimentality and a score by Jerry Goldsmith that is absolutely beautiful.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Malcolm McDowell Double Feature

Last night was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with an old friend that I've never met. Malcolm McDowell has been an actor I have watched for decades now in a variety of parts. I was of course first introduced to him as were most Americans by his brilliant turn in the Stanley Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange".  This is a film that I love but that my wife loathed, but her dislike for the movie had nothing to do with McDowell. In fact, one of the two films playing last night was a favorite of hers and it may be one of the most romantic films we saw together as a couple. 

One of the ways you can get a little spoiled by living in Southern California is by having these kinds of opportunities on a regular basis. In fact it was only six months ago that Malcolm and I previously spent time together. He was a host at a musical salute to Kubrick by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Most of the stories he told that day focused on his work with Kubrick and their subsequent relationship. Last night however, at the break between films, the subjects of his stories were primarily about the Director Lindsay Anderson, who plucked McDowell from theatrical work in Great Britain and plugged him into the film world that would become his main home. 

There were dozens of stories he told to interviewer Alex Simon, but every time Simon tried to move on to Kubrick or Schrader, McDowell found a way to bring the discussion back to his long time friend and mentor. There was a terrific story about Lindsay Anderson visiting John Ford near the end of the western directors life. McDowell is quite the raconteur and was never at a loss for something interesting to share. He offered us the invitation to watch a film of the presentation he did about Lindsay Anderson at a Film festival a few years ago. I found the link he suggested and I am sharing it with you now. I look forward to watching the whole thing.

As for the features, well it has been a long time since I saw "Cat People", the overly literal remake of the classic horror film from 1942. This film came out forty years later in a great cinema year but definitely a different time in Hollywood. 

I had forgotten the long lead in sequence with backstory about the origins of the Cat People of the story. It actually looks like a long outtake from the new version of "Dune" that we are supposed to get next year. The desert sky is orange, the tree in the center of the sequence is dead and there is dust everywhere. 

The real story picks up when Nastassja Kinski shows up in New Orleans to reconnect with her brother played by Malcolm McDowell. They were separated as children after their parents died and it is just as she is turning twenty or so that they are reunited. Mr. McDowell had nothing but great things to say about her beauty in the film and how happy he was to be working with her. In his introduction to the first movie, he did point out that he had to learn to act backwards because there is one sequence early on that is shot in reverse to give the actions of the character an more ethereal feel. He did seem to regret that he never needed this skill for any subsequent film. 

In 1982, this film felt weird but not out of place with the times. There was a lot of experimentation with psycho sexual themes and mystery stories and even science fiction horror moments. I can't quite put my finger on why 80s horror movies feel as ominous as they do, but also fresh and distinctive in spite of mining some of the same tropes over and over. Director Schrader does allow the slow build of some of the tension in the film, but cuts down so much on the narrative that at times it was hard to figure out the motivations of any of the characters. For instance, actress Annette O'Toole plays a character who seems at times to be romantically linked with leading man John Heard, but she also seems nonplussed at the growing romance between Heard and Kinski's characters. In the end it doesn't matter much because she ends up naked in the pool while being stalked, so the focus is all on her in that scene when in the original it was the exact opposite. The shadows and light were the focus of the pool scene in the 1942 film. 

Probably because Schrader has a deep history with religious themes, McDowell is presnted as some sort of religious zealot, although that ends up having little to do with the story, except to create a sense of regret and guilt in his character. That would have been a worthy way to make this film more distinctive, rather than the more explicit sex and violence path that the movie ends up following. Another one of those weird elements that seems to fit in with the times is the presence of another character who may or may not know about the carnivorous sexual habits of her employer. Ruby Dee is enigmatic as the housekeeper that is also keeping secrets. Her facial expressions and have spoken warnings seem to fit with a lot of short hand characters from movies of that time, Scatman Crothers in "the Shining" is a similar character. 

I did remember how the film ends and it is both laughable and tragically appropriate. Still the most memorable element of the movie is the score by Giorgio Moroder  and the theme song by David Bowie. The Bowie tune will be most familiar to modern audiences through it's use in "Inglorious Basterds".  Here is a link so you can enjoy the song as you continue reading. 

After the first film is when Alex Simon and Malcolm McDowell engaged in their discussion and some Q and A with the audience. I've already described some of it to you and I'm sure the video on "Never Apologize" above will have some of the same things. I do want to briefly talk about his response to an audience member's question about "Caligula". McDowell was brutal in his assessment of Gore Vidal as a screen writer. Vidal had his name taken off the film and claimed that Bob Guccione, the producer and uncredited director of the film ruined it. McDowell says that Vidal's screenplay was shit and nothing could have saved this turkey. He then told a great story about pranking Vidal with Truman Capote, a writing nemesis, over some laundry. It was quite amusing, as was McDowell's comment that Vidal could take his name off the film, but Malcolm couldn't. 

The second film on the schedule is far better and more memorable for a lot of reasons. To begin with, the script is a tightly plotted mystery thriller with an irresistible concept. H.G. Wells, the author actually has a time machine and Jack the Ripper uses it to escape to the future where Wells attempts to pursue him. It is a great mash up of science fiction, horror-thriller, procedural and romance in one. The director here was Nicholas Myer, making his directing debut. Myer had previously written the screenplay for the movie made from his novel, the "Seven Percent Solution" another pairing of historical characters, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes. 

"Time After Time" is actually the final film on my original blog project from 2010. There is not much I would add to my original comments about the film, I would urge you to go back and read them. I think the less you know of the plot mechanics the more satisfying the film is. There was one element that I will repeat here and it ties into my point about this film being a romantic masterpiece. When asked about the most memorable part of part in this film, without hesitation McDowell said meeting, falling in love with and marrying Mary Steenburgen. Their marriage lasted more than a decade and they have two children together and a very friendly relationship despite the break up. I claim that you can literally see them falling in love with one another in this movie. 

Of course that is the story of the film but the idea of chemistry between actors has never been so obvious in my eyes. good actors can fake it even when they despise on another, but this is a case of reality intruding into the film itself. 

I think I was a little critical of the special effects when I first wrote about this movie a decade ago. The photographic effects work pretty well for the kind of story we are being told here and they seemed to hold up better on the big screen last night then they did on home video when I last saw this film for a review.

I will just briefly mention that before the program started, I had gone up to the bathroom and I was a little put out by the fact that a group of people were conducting a conversation in the entryway of the theater, blocking my return to my seat. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the two people involved were the interviewer and the special guest for the evening. I did eavesdrop a little on their conversation. Alex Simon was reminding McDowell that he had interviewed him almost fifteen years ago for a different project and they engaged in some more small talk. I went back to my seat, comfortable in the knowledge that the featured guest was here and in good form, and thankful that the cranky old man in me had not snapped at them for blocking the path.

Echo in the Canyon

Part concert film, part behind the scenes featurette and part documentary, "Echo in the Canyon" was a delightful surprise that is likely to end up on several year end lists because of it's subject matter. Laurel Canyon has been known for forty years as a mecca for the creative community in Southern California. The 2002 drama featuring Christian Bale and Francis McDormand explored some of the bohemian lifestyle that flourished there but it was mainly focused on the psycho sexual drama of it's story. This film emphasizes a very different component, one that a lot more people are likely to care about, the music scene in SoCal, particularly the years from 1965-1967.

Automatically, modern audiences might be put off by the subject of music from fifty years ago that they may be unfamiliar with. I was flabbergasted a couple of weeks ago at some of the bands my students had never heard of. But once the music starts flowing in this film, our DNA kicks in and even people who don't know the artists will know the songs. If you pay enough attention, they will also know the importance of this period to popular music. This was a transitional period as Rock and Roll was maturing from the pop strains of the fifties and the early Beatles, to a more sophisticated music structure and lyrical content. The Beatles influenced The Beach Boys who in turn influenced the Beatles, and all of that influenced dozens of other musicians.

The film was executive produced by Jakob Dylan and he is featured as an interviewer and a performer. As a way of contextualizing the music, he brings together a variety of artists to put together a tribute show to that era and to record songs for an album. In the course of the film he digs up stories about the most influential acts that were thriving in that period and place. "The Byrds", The Mamas and the Papas", "Buffalo Springfield" are the main acts, but there was a sense of comradely competition and sharing among all the musicians of the Canyon. Dylan is an effective performer but as an interviewer, his main skill is to get out of the way of the subjects that he is talking to. Michelle Phillips is pretty honest about the lifestyle she led, David Crosby brutally assesses the reasons that the Byrds broke up, Roger McGuinn is thoughtful in his analysis of what made people creative. There are a dozen other members of that community who share thoughts and stories as well, but just as you might start worrying that all we are going to get are talking heads, a musical sequence, archival footage or outtakes from a forgotten Hollywood film made by French film makers arrives to entice us further.

The retro footage from "Model Shop" shows the era of the film and was an inspiration to the producers and director to put this film together. Mid to late sixties Los Angeles is where I grew up so it has a nostalgic feel for me as well as providing some historical context. The biggest thrill in the film however is revisiting the songs that still thrive in our heads.  TV clips from the Sullivan show and Dick Clark often introduce a song, and then we get to hear from the creators themselves and finally, the music is re-created for us. Those new versions are sometime performed in an intimate living room jam session, or maybe in a recording studio as a new collection of the songs is being prepared for an album. The most joyous place we hear them however is onstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in a concert from 2015 when this project began. When you hear the music, time stands still and at least for me, my memories are stimulated as much as the drugs stimulated the creativity of the original artists.

I don't see enough documentaries to feel confident about comparing their technical qualities very much. I can talk about their style and themes however, and this film hits it's themes very effectively. The entertainment value of the movie is not neglected either, especially since the subject matter is a form of popular entertainment. I was very wistful each time the late Tom Petty was on screen. Although he was not a member of the community of that era, he is the embodiment of the influence it had on popular music, and he knew that well. His reflections serve as a sort of Greek Chorus to the whole enterprise and the film ends up being dedicated to him. I saw this at the Archlight in Hollywood and in addition to be surrounded by the neighborhoods that are featured in the film, there was a special feature after the film where a correspondent for the Archlight Theater chain interviewed the film makers and they added some more to the story. If this is playing somewhere near you at an Archlight Theater, i'm sure you will find it worthwhile to stay for the extra ten minutes.

By the way, we immediately went next door to Amoeba Records to try and get the soundtrack, sadly it is not out until the end of the month. I will be digging up the original songs to listen to until then. I could not recommend this film more highly. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I know a lot of people who have "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" high on their lists of most anticipated films of the year. If you grew up watching the many variations of Godzilla movies that were primarily a man in a suit, stomping on miniature versions of Tokyo, it's easy to understand your attraction to this franchise. These were the original disaster films, that featured large swaths of civilization laid to waste by giant monsters battling one another. Before "Transformers" or the MCU, this was your go to fix for mass destruction.

A few years ago, I had a slight aversion to these types of movies, a hangover of 9/11. The thought of the death that would be involved took most of the joy out of this after a while. Maybe it is true that time heals all wounds because I did not have a negative reaction this time around. In part it may be that the cities are mostly abandoned in anticipation of the arrival of the monsters, but I also think that since there is such a heavy emphasis on the scale of the creatures, everything else looks like toys being crushed, despite the improvements of Computer Generated Images. It still comes across as if we have guys in rubber suits wrestling among the sets.

"King of the Monsters" does not waste time setting up a backstory or building a narrative. It launches right into what passes as a plot with Scientist Emma Russell, played by Vera Farmiga, plowing forward with a tool to communicate with "Titans" in a primitive way using sound. She is estranged from her ex-husband after they lost their son in Godzilla's rampage in San Francisco five years ago. Her daughter Madison however is still in touch with her Dad electronically, and she has some worries about her mother's obsessions. Millie Bobbie Brown from "Stranger Things" plays the young Maddy and to no one's surprise, ends up in the middle of the "clash of the Titans". Kyle Chandler is her Dad, and he is a veteran of these kinds of films having been in Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong" and the J.J. Abrams genetically derived from Spielberg "Super 8".  Ken Watanabe returns as the character he played in 2014's "Godzilla" and so do Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn. Their presence is not essential to the story, it merely adds a link to try and connect the events of the earlier film to these proceedings. New characters abound and are played by familiar faces but their parts have little impact on the main focus of this film...monsters fighting.

The pace of the movie is relentless, and that may sound like a good thing but I'm not sure it is. There is virtually no time to reflect on the implications of each new discovery or every turn in the tide  because the next plot complication arrives almost immediately. Maybe that's why the movie feels so much like a cartoon and is more easily digested, because the human characters are so superfluous to the events happening on screen. The locations around the world keep shifting so quickly that we don't get much sens of our bearings before we are whisked off to another battle on a different continent. The best things that the movie has going for it are it's scope, size and volume. Spinal Tap must have left their equipment in the studio when the sound engineers of this film went to work because this movie plays at eleven, for all Two hours and eleven minutes. There is so much, roaring, screaming and explosive impact from the screen that I would advise you to bring earplugs if you want to avoid tinnitus for a few hours after the film plays. 

Monarch is the name of the secret agency tasked with dealing with these monsters, see there is a link to Godzilla even in the name of our science group. The scientists solve problems in seconds but the military component of the group leaves something to be desired. The tactical units don't know how to secure an area that they are taking control of. The equipment is always damaged in some way as to require a fix that presents a distracting side complication to the fight. And finally, there does not seem to be a very clear chain of command. Basically, a terror group that wants the monsters to remake the planet, is battling with Monarch over control of technology and the monsters themselves. So in addition to the Three headed invasive species of Ghidorah, Monarch has to deal with Tywin Lannister. This plot thread will allow a continuation of the franchise and the restoration of some of the destroyed creatures in future episode. There are also a few seeds of the future Kong vs Godzilla battle that all the fans of these movies are waiting for. There were no crossover characters from "Kong Skull Island" in this film, but the location is referred to a couple of times and it is clear that Kong is one of the titans that will battle for apex status in the future.

So the human characters are not great, they just hold together enough plot to make the giant monster battles serve some purpose. Those big battles look pretty spectacular, but I've got to say, if it were not for human intervention, there would be little reason to think of Godzilla as the king. He gets whooped a couple of times in the movie and it is only "Science" that makes him able to challenge for the throne again. Look it's big and LOUD, and a lot of fun, but it means little and you will not be permanently impacted one way or another. Go have some popcorn, put your favorite candy in the popcorn and then butter it. Wash it down with a large soda, because after all, you are being asked to swallow an awful lot by this movie.