Sunday, February 27, 2022

Nostalgia Movie Weekend


There is no greater tribute to the quality of a film than the fact that it resonates with audiences many years after it was first shown to them. The Screening of "The Godfather" that I attended on Friday, is basically a commercial for the 4K transfer and Blu-ray that is being released next month. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film and it continues to be among the finest movies ever made, if not in fact the best film ever made. Our screening was packed. That's right, a fifty year old film, that is available on multiple platforms and formats, is still able to draw an audience to a movie theater and that is the miracle of this movie. 

Five years ago, at a similar screening, I offered thoughts on the film that mentioned two scenes that again stood out. I will let you go back to that post for those details, instead let me offer two other moments to focus on for this screening. The very first scene with Brando is spellbinding. He speaks in a passive voice and he is not really focused on the supplicant who wants him to do murder, he is fondling a cat. Famously, this was not scripted but was a result of the stray animal being on the set and Brando improvising. It fits in perfectly with the persona of Don Corleone, who is only half listening to the undertaker seeking vengeance, but is also confident enough to hide his thoughts in this playful moment. 

Later, when he is taking the meeting with Sollozzo, he looks like a mildly interested man who wants the meeting to be done with but is polite enough to be slightly more attentive. When he moves over to speak to Sollozzo more intimately, he dusts off his conversation partner's knee in a familiar fatherly gesture, even at the moment he is turning down the proposal. It is clear that Vito Corleone has a personal charisma that is not loud and overpowering but rather soft and subdued. The only time we hear him raise his voice is when he is mocking Johnny Fontaine, his Godson, and most of that volume is exaggerated for their relationship, not real anger. This is a man who knows how to influence people and woo them to his patronage. That it fails him with the "Turk" is just a catalyst for the story. 

Once again, anyone who has not seen this film on the Big Screen is missing a marvelous chance to be absorbed into one of the greatest films of all time.

The very next night, we also traveled back to a critically acclaimed Best Picture winner, that I have loved since I first saw it when I was nine or ten. 

Just as the Godfather experience I wrote about above had a five year precursor screening, it has been five years since we had the same sort of performance for "West Side Story". This was not your typical screening but rather a presentation of the film with a live orchestral accompaniment. Back in 2017, we saw the film with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Having relocated to the Austin area almost 18 months ago,  it was taking me a while to get back to live Orchestra performances. Two weeks ago we saw the Austin Ballet Company perform "A Midsummer Nights Dream" it was a lot of fun but the orchestra was in a pit and the focus was on the dance.  Last night the stage was filled with a hundred plus musicians and a large screen above them for the movie to play on. 

I found the Austin Symphony Orchestra to be a powerful  ensemble who played excellently. There was not a dominant section that stood out because all the instruments were solid and the scoring matched the design of the film. I was happy to be listening to live concert music and it simply doubled the pleasure that it was with a great movie.

Again, I will refer you to the earlier post for a complete discussion of the film, but for this post I do want to take time to talk about a couple of things. All props to Rita Moreno and George Chakiris who deserved their awards back in 1961, but it is frequently overlooked as to how effective Natalie Wood was in the role of Maria. It is true that she did not do her own singing and she was not of Puerto Rican heritage, but she looks wonderful on screen. Woods dances elegantly in several of the numbers that require her to be light on her feet, and her visual performance in close ups is completely in keeping with the character.

Live Music, a classic film musical, and the recent Spielberg remake to stoke interest was enough to get me out for this. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022



In one of the few instances I can think of, I went to this movie knowing nothing about it except that Liam Neeson was the star. I literally had heard nothing about it and it was only a passing listing on a theater web page that brought me to the movie. The trailer above I had never seen before writing this post, after seeing the film. When I posted it, there were 195,750 views, which does not shout out "Success!" or "Box Office!" in today's social media environment. That was OK because it is Winter and Liam Neeson is in a movie, so someone is going to do some killing. I am an admitted fan. I somehow missed his last two action films, "The Ice Road" and The Marksman", but I usually queue up immediately for one of these Winter Action Thrillers. This time I must admit I was disappointed.

This movie is so conventional, it feels like a Netflix retread of an eighties conspiracy film, not a seventies one, which would probably be worthwhile, but more like something drained of inventiveness but slick enough to look interesting for a few minutes. It turns out it never gets as interesting as you hoped it would be. The plot is so simple as to be a trope in and of itself, a government agency is killing citizens it thinks are a risk to the country. This time it is not the C.I.A. or the N.S.A. of some made up intelligence group, it's the F.B.I. and they have their own rogue operatives. It turns out Neeson's Travis Block isn't in on the program, he's not actually an agent. He works off the books, backing up agents who are in deep cover and need assistance. It's not clear if the whistle blower agent is his partner, which does not make much sense since Travis is not an agent, or if he is just a close friend. Either way, should he be stopped or praised for coming forward with his story?

No one should be advocating the assassination of someone you disagree with, but the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plot device is probably going to amuse some people and outrage others. The idea that what she is doing is actually accomplishing something in the movie is silly, and whoever thought getting rid of her was a good idea is an idiot. Which brings us to the first of the two stupidest characters I have seen in a movie in a while. Aidan Quinn is the F.B.I. Director without a ounce of common sense. If you see this movie, see if you can pick out the three times he screws up in his decision making. There is one plot point where he almost goes BOO! and then runs away from the complication. It is the laziest writing I have watched in a theatrical movie in a long time. This could be one of those Bruce Willis Video films that requires no sophistication at all.

The "journalist" in this film is even more stupid. She seems to have no idea that you need evidence, sources and additional corroboration to make a charge in a news publication. Her editor seems to understand that, but he is even more stupid by publishing her work without verification under his own by-line. The truth is, this may unfortunately reflect the state of modern journalism, we are a long way from Woodward and Bernstein. 

There is a personal story about Travis having OCD and paranoia, so much so that it drives his daughter away from him and creates a potential problem with his granddaughter. You would think that the threat to the family would be a major element of the film, giving Neeson license to unleash his well known special skills. That turns out to mostly be a red herring. He does not go after the bad guys so much as he runs away from them and outwits them a couple of times. Mostly this is an excuse for chases, none of which are very good, although the idea of a garbage truck being used as a vehicle for local destruction is fun. 

I did not hate this film, I simply did not respect it and there are soo many better Neeson Action films, why waste your time? 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022)

So the reboot of Agatha Christie stories by Kenneth Branagh continues with this elegant film that is being released almost two years later than planned.  Murder on the Orient Express was reasonably successful adult mystery film a couple of years ago, so a follow-up seemed likely.  The character of Hercule Poirot is a natural for a film series and the detective does not disappoint in this entry. 

The film opens with a flashback scene that shows us young Poirot in WWI, already observant of the details surrounding him. Although we also get an origin story of his mustache,  it's really about his detective skills and the sadness that will follow him the rest of his career.  It is certainly not relevant the story but it adds character to our lead and makes the main story more interesting. This is one of the things that marks this as an improvement on the previous film, all the characters are going to be introduced slowly enough for us to have a sense of what is going on and who is who. The fact that they are not on the Nile in the first fifteen minutes does not detract from the story but rather adds to it.

The cast is elaborate and international, and they are all reasonably good. Gal Godot looks great but the scenes she appears in during the trailer had me worried about her performance. As it turns out, the over the top delivery in those clips is not typical and she is really much more solid. These films seem to have a curse on them to some degree, because one of the lead actors has gotten into a public relations nightmare. Johnny Depp is still trying to crawl out of the hole that lead many to boycott seeing him in "Murder", Armie Hammer now takes a turn at being the public figure with a dark cloud hanging over him and bringing it to the theater with him. His character is the most cliched in the film, so that undermines a little bit of the suspense. His best moments are a dance sequence with Emma Mackey who plays the fiancé that his character ditches for Godot. Their erotic dance suggests a relationship that is pretty powerful and may leave some suspense on the table as a result.

Frankly, the main attraction here is the look of the film. As elegant as "Murder" was, this doubles down on that. Once we get to Egypt, we have fantastic vistas, a romantic river (filled with crocodiles) and a boat to die for. The ship that the whole cast ends up on may be a CGI invention is some shots, but it is carried off well, and the actual sets that are the staterooms, dining room and main hall of the boat are all decorated lavishly with period colors, art work and deco designs. The clothes and the food will make you wish that you were taking the trip with this crew of suspects.

The main weakness of the film is the convoluted process by which the murders are carried out. It follows the same design as the 1978 version, so I assume that Christie is responsible for those plot points since they are identical for the most part. When we get to the solution, it feels a little bit like one of the three endings of the comedy "Clue" , where there is a lot of running around, actions that rush by, and the detective taking it all for granted that he has it correct. The side plot of the blues singer and her niece is a little spliced in, but it ends up working anyway.

All in all it is a very entertaining film and one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinematography you are likely to see this year. The score from Christopher Gunning is lush and evocative, and I thought it was superior in fitting the film than the work that was done in the 2017 "Murder". This is an adult film with a little mystery, a lot of drama and some great scenery. Why wouldn't you have a good time?

Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Quick and the Dead (1995) [Movies I Want Everyone to See]

I am getting ready this weekend for a Podcast on the LAMB, covering the 1995 Sam Rami film, "The Quick and the Dead". I have just watched it for maybe the thirtieth time and I am so excited to talk about the film again. The movie was one of eight that I submitted to be Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. As host, I get to select the films that the community votes for in my Birthday Month. While it is at least the fourth time I have submitted "The Man Who Would be King" as a MOTM option, I am perfectly happy with the results found here because I clearly love this film.

 Let me point to the two biggest factors that draw me to this movie. First of all, it is a western, and they don't make them much any more. The early 90s saw a brief revival of the genre, lead in part by the fantastic Clint Eastwood  film, "Unforgiven". At the time this was shot, there were a number of other westerns being made and reportedly, costumes became a little sparse. When I was growing up, most of the westerns being released were post modern critiques of the traditional genre. "The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance", "The Wild Bunch", and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, focused on breaking down the myths of the western, and giving us anti-heroes as our protagonists.  Of course there were television westerns all over the three major networks, and that saturation probably lead to the decline of the film genre. While some of those featured unconventional heroes, none of them that I remember were out right bad guys for us to root for.  Leone and Sam Peckinpah turned shady characters into the stars of their films and ever since, there is a delicate morality to the movies. 

The second major factor that keeps me hypnotized by this film is the performance of Gene Hackman. I have made no secret of the fact that Hackman is my favorite actor. He is not movie star handsome, he is not chiseled like a superhero, and unfortunately, he stopped working in movies in 2004. The thing that he is is talented. He seems to have an instinct for the characters he is playing and the everyman quality he brings to the screen, actually enhances both his roles as good guy and as villain. In "The Quick and the Dead", he is clearly the later. Unlike the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, that he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in "Unforgiven", John Herod, the town of Redemptions usurper king, has no pretentions as to morality and justice. He is a self centered monster who rules with an iron sidearm and an iron fist. More about his performance in a bit.

So those are the two primary draws, but they are not the only sugar bringing this fly to the table. The star and co-producer of the film is Sharon Stone. This film came out the same year as her Academy Award Nominated role in "Casino". She was at the height of her star power and sexual charisma, and she is using it in this movie. There is something striking about a woman in the traditional gunfighter's role that makes it compelling. The film is drawing on her bigger than life persona to turn her character into the person that we most want to see succeed in the story. The fact that her wardrobe flatters her, and she still gets to wear very western garb is visually satisfying in almost every scene. "The Lady" as she is usually referred to as, wears  a her holster and the gun at a slightly different angle. Her style is also just different enough to be noticeable without it becoming an artificial conceit. Slightly forward on her hip rather than low and on the outside.

When it comes to talent and charisma, the film does not run out of steam with the two leads. There are two actors billed after Hackman and Stone who will dominate the masculine acting roles for the next twenty five years. Russel Crowe is making his American film debut with this appearance and he quickly leans into Sam Rami's style and looks the heartthrob that he would become for a decade after.  

The part of Cort, gives him a meaty role that allows him to act as well as engage in the action. He is a reformed criminal who is doing penance for his previous life by taking up the role of preacher and is reluctantly dragged back in to the town by the will of his former mentor and now enemy, Herod. His conflicted participation in the quick draw contest that frames the story is dramatically satisfying without sucking up all the air in the revenge drama that Stone's character is playing out. 

Speaking of heartthrobs, this movie features a young actor, fresh off of his first Academy Award Nomination and just two years away from playing the biggest romantic lead in the biggest romantic movie of the last fifty years. Leonardo DiCaprio, was 20 years old when he played the part of Fee, better known as The Kid, opposite the three other acting legends. He looks like he is twelve, and playing cowboys with the big kids. He does however have a winning smile and a effervescent way of talking that belies the characters desperation to be accepted at the grown up table by his suspected true father, Herod. Of all the actors, he needs the most help with the gunplay required of his part. He manages the bravado of the tricks and the poses, but he just seems slow in comparison to everyone else. 

Cantrell in the background Ace up front.
So those are the stars, but the acting wattage does not really end there. Among the cast are veteran TV character actors like Roberts Blossom, Kevin Conway and Mark Boone Junior. They are grimy character actors who make up so much of the environment of the movie. The personalities that fill in the background are even bigger. Keith David is Sgt. Clay Cantrell, a self described gentlemen's adventurer and shootist. His enigmatic character faces down Hackman both in the parlor of Herod's house and on the street of Redemption. The polite banter that he and Hackman engage in is an opportunity to see the professionalism that the two gunfighters want to project to the world.  Another gunfighter, played by Lance Henriksen, is the blow hard Ace Hanlon. A self promoter who has affectations that mark him as something of a buffoon, including a deck of cards stacked with aces, one for every man he has killed, and boots to die for, Hanlon is a character that enters the film dramatically and exits it too early.

Momentarily I will get to the plot and it's connection to the Leone films of the 1960s, but one actor who appears in the flashback sequences should also be named. A year after his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise, plays the long ago Marshall of the town of Redemption. His character is the catalyst for the revenge story that Sharon Stone is following. Even though his scene is broken up into bits for the brief flashbacks, he creates a sympathetic character that the audience can see as important to the story arc that Ellen (The Lady) is carrying out. Sinise does the whole scene balanced on a chair and choking. What happens creates a different kind of choking on the part of the audience.

The film's story and the look of the movie, are clearly influenced by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. There is an entrance based on riding by the local undertaker as they enter the town, In "A Fist Full of Dollars" Clint tells the man to get three coffins ready, here, the coffin maker speaks and accurately states the height of Stone's character, suggesting he will be ready when her turn comes. The duster she wears is not the same as the poncho that the Man with No Name wears in the Dollars Trilogy, but she does have a scarf that gives a very similar effect in her appearance and both of them seem to favor the same tobaccoist. 

"The Quick and the Dead" is Sam Rami's homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. There are tense close ups in the build to each showdown. The eyes of the characters are doing so much of the acting in those scenes that we barely notice the rest of the surroundings. Rami cross cuts tightly and the images close in, just as Leone did in so many of his films.  There is a scene in a gun shop in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach's character Tuco, is examining the guns and clicking through the cylinders. Crowe does the same thing as Herod takes him to get armed for the contest in Fee's shop. Woody Strode, the athlete turned actor who supported John Wayne in Liberty Vallance, and tried to gun down Charles Bronson in "Once Upon a Time in the West" makes his final screen appearance in this film as the coffin maker and the movie is dedicated to him. The most obvious steal is the scene featuring Sinise. Sharon Stone is a much more attractive version of Charles Bronson's Harmonica from "Once Upon a Time in the West". 

For every idea and stylistic flourish that Rami takes from Leone, he brings his own original style to the movie as well. The dolly zooms that he used so much in the Evil Dead films, fit perfectly in several spots in this movie. The gunfighters stand far apart from one another, but we can feel the tension ratchet up as the next shot zooms the opponent in at a weird Dutch angle. 

All of these tricks are needed to help overcome the somewhat repetitive showdown in the street structure of the story. This is a quick draw contest, ultimately to the death, and there are 16 participants so there are going to be a lot of gunfights in the movie that are one on one in the main street of the town of Redemption. When I have seen negative reviews of this film, they often claim that the story is boring because the same event is reenacted over and over. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie Two Thumbs down for that very reason. What people are missing ate the innovative ways each of those gunfights is shot. There are also twists in several of the face offs that make the each contest unique. Additionally, the music themes play up different emotional beats for the fights. Sometimes the score is nearly whimsical and other times it is thunderous. 

Two of Herod's fights demonstrate this. The showdown with Ace Hanlon is slow to develop and then like a whip, the first shot is cracked and then we get a villain's exposition from Hackman that is so condescending, the end is almost a relief to Ace. With Cantrell, we get two extra shots, one that spins his fancy sidearm around after the man has been shot and then the Coup de Grâce, a point of view shot that is disturbing and inventive and new to the genre. The TV critics down play it as grotesque, but let's face it, the deadly combat in and of itself is also morbid. 

Back to Gene hackman for a few minutes. Herod is an egoist who wants everything to go his way. He demands the retorn of Cort to his town, just so he can lord over him the power that he has. He is dismissive of The Lady at first and then tries to manipulate her to his will. At the dinner scene, Ellen gets the drop on him with a small gun under the table, hidden from view. Herod hears the hammer being cocked and responds with a similar sound to dissuade her from shooting. After she blinks, he gives away the fact that he was bluffing with the hammercock sound he produced, using a metal matchbox. He smiles smugly in his victory over her as she retreats. Hackman does these kinds of smiles and small hand gestures throughout the picture.  Before his gunfight with Cantrell, he meticulously files the hammer on his disassembled firearm, to insure it is working properly. Rami tags on a slow motion shot when Hackman is lighting his cigar during a showdown, which accentuates the moment but it is the deliberate manner he uses in a casual way that sells his total control of the situation. Just to add one more element to Hackman's complete command of the part, he looks elegant in all of his costumes, including the sidearms that go around his suit jacket in one scene. 

In previous posts about the film, I mentioned the music, in fact I had a link up to the theme on YouTube, that seems to have expired for some reason. I have an updated link to a suite of the music here:

It is quite lovely, and it does mirror some Morricone themes from the softer moments of the Dollars films. There is nothing as grandiose as the Theme from the Good ,The Bad and The Ugly", but there are a lot of places where it builds tension really well. Composer Alan Silvestri, who has done scores for "back to the Future" and four of the MCU films, has never received an Academy Award, but his music has received a lot of love from fans, and this is one of the pieces that is maybe not as popular, but it is certainly well matched with the drama of the film. 

Director of Photography Dante Spinotti worked with Rami to get the signature shots that enliven the shootouts, but he has also photographed the plains, town and dingy barrooms of Redemption in a beautiful fashion. The sometimes sepia infused lighting is great for some of the interiors and the early shots. I was very impressed with all of the shots supposedly taking place in the rain, especially the shootout between Ellen and Dread. Spinotti would go on to an Academy Award nomination two years later for "L.A. Confidential". 

There will always be more to talk about on this film. Russell Crowe and DiCaprio should merit some comments of their own. Some of this will be discussed on the podcast, and I will come back and add a link to that when it goes up. For now I am just happy to be anticipating the discussion we will have, the notes that I have just given you, and the fact that a 4K version of the film arrived on my doorstep today, and I am about to watch it again. 


Saturday, February 5, 2022



There is no way around it, this may be the dumbest movie of the year. The premise is silly, the dialogue is stupid and the ultimate explanation will leave you feeling incredulous at the crap that some people might believe. That said, you will probably still have a good time because all of the stupidity plays out in pretty solid special effects at a reasonable pace, with a little humor thrown in now and then and those jokes were intentional. 

Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry are working for a paycheck and having a little fun, and for the most part they play it straight. No one could take this seriously, so the laughs are not unexpected but they may be unintentional. I have not seen "Don't Look Up", but my understanding is that the satire in that film is supposed to make us think seriously about our institutions. This film has no such pretentions. This is presented as a straight drama, but nothing in it is believable. I saw in the credits that there were actual consultants from NASA who advised the film makers, but whatever they said must have largely been ignored.

Let's talk about what is fun in the movie and ignore the idiocy for a moment. For years I joked with my students about the persuasive power of a TV commercial where a Toyota tows a Space Shuttle down the street. If the director had placed a Toyota Tundra in one scene of this movie, it would have amplified the moment ten times over, someone missed a trick here. Even so, it was still fun when a decommissioned Space Shuttle is hijacked to be the vehicle the astronaut rescue team is going to use. Having walked by the building that house Endeavor on my way to the USC football games each weekend, it was a blast seeing the L.A. Coliseum in the background and the streets of L.A. littered with debris. It is also outright hysterical when the gravity of the Moon starts lifting objects off the ground like a tornado.  In fact, the large tree that pins a character to the ground flies up in the air, although the characters do not. The gravity wave is the most interesting visual effect in the movie and it's mixture with the launch of the Space Shuttle looks great but seem preposterous. 
The main reason we go to films like this is that it is safe disaster porn. Unlike the footage from 9/11 or the scenes of the Japanese tsunami, we know what we are looking at is a fiction, and we don't have to feel like ghouls watching a traffic accident as we drive by, because it is not real. The destruction of the cities is vivid with the exception that we don't really see any people dead afterwards. It's just a picture we can look on with mock horror and still sleep at night later. Roland Emmerich has destroyed the planet three or four times before. I think "2012" was more elaborate, "Independence Day" was more fun, and "Godzilla" may actually be more intelligent. Start the popcorn maker, shut off your brain, and don't let your self worth be defined by enjoying any of this, that would be taking it too seriously.