Sunday, October 15, 2017

American Made



Now that we have talked about the foreigners, let's discuss a home brewed concoction of history, baloney and Tom Cruise. "American Made" is the supposed true story of Barry Seal, who as a convicted drug smuggler negotiated a deal to assist the D.E.A. in in their investigations. The makers of this film, decide to splice the C.I.A., Iran-Contra and every president from Jimmy Carter up to George W. Bush into this story. I just hope that film goers recognize that Hollywood is a bad place to learn about history, even when it is a good place to make an engaging film.

All of the political material is nearly superfluous, since there is no real agenda in this movie other than to entertain us for a couple of hours.  The time line, characters and general insanity that take place are clearly the invention of creative minds rather than advocates with an agenda. In my opinion, this is the movie that "the Wolf of Wall Street" could have been if that film making crew had stuck to telling an interesting story instead of glorifying in excess and then pontificating at us. Director Doug Liman has the good fortune to have his personable con-man played by the personable Tom Cruise, who shakes off the unfortunate "Mummy" curse with a much more polished performance here.

The visions of excess here do not involve repeated episodes of drug use, sex and humiliation of other human beings. Rather, the situation attempts to lampoon the success of the drug trade by noting how problematic the issue of laundering the money would be. While there is one scene where Cruise as Seal gets covered in the imported product, he does not spend two thirds of the movie cranked up like Leonardo DiCapro. Instead, he is waist deep in cash and can't find a way to hide the money as fast as he is making it. The story plays out like a comedy version of a double episode of "Miami Vice". Seal and his wife argue over when he should rake up all the buried cash the dog has dug up. The town that he relocates to is flush with newly created financial institutions that seem to be serving a population of under 3000 with the kinds of banking services you'd find not too far off of Wall Street.

Domhnall Gleeson plays the imaginary C.I.A. recruiter who is supposed to have set Barry down the path to self destruction. He has a great American Accent, but not a very believable role. Sarah Wright plays the spouse of our gun running, drug smuggling, money laundering hero. I've not seen her before that I recall but she fits the part as written just fine. Caleb Landry Jones plays the misbegotten brother-in-law JB. Up to the point when his character exits the picture, the film plays like "Hogan's Heroes" set in Central America. The movie takes a nasty turn after that and you will find that the real life BarrySeal had real life consequences to his actions.

I was a little nonplussed at the inclusion of a sequence that seems to have been taken from last year's "Jack Reacher" film, also starring Cruise. I suppose the allure of Tom being so untouchable is just too much catnip to resist for film makers. I will however advise that they drop this soon to be Cruise Trope before the next "Mission Impossible". I don't think you want your Crown Jewel film franchise to be seen as cribbing from lesser works. Even if they are entertaining.

The Foreigner



Doesn't everyone like Jackie Chan? Although he has made some political statements over the last few years that I think are ill informed, I still love the guy. He is a true athlete with charisma to burn and even at his age he makes most younger action stars look like they are standing still. His new movie was produced by him and financed by Chinese media companies, but it is as slick an action spy film as you might hope to see for the price. As an added bonus we get two former Bond veterans to go along with it.

If you watch the trailer you might be expecting a straight action revenge film, but there is a lot more involved here. Quan is a bereaved father on a one man mission to take out the terrorists that killed his daughter. To do so he must squeeze whatever resource he can to find out who is at fault. Here is where the extra material comes in. Pierce Brosnan is a Deputy Minister for Northern Ireland, working for the British, he happens to be a former terrorist with the IRA who now seeks the best interests of the area in peace. There are conflicting goals for the people he represents and he is caught in the middle. The plot is full of multiple double crosses, switching loyalties and complex twists of real political events. It's the usual spy territory and Jackie Chan just happens to have dropped into it.

I'll make a confession here that will probably result in a few points being deducted from my "Man Card". As  reference let me include this two and a half minute scene from the 1985 movie "VisionQuest":

 

The way this character responded to Pele', is the way I respond to Jackie Chan. I feel elevated as a human being when I see the stuff he is capable of doing. I teared up at "Rumble In the Bronx " twenty years ago because Jackie Chan is so damn graceful and amazing. I didn't choke up today, but I should have, because he is older than I am and he still does this incredible stuff. He is also a very solid actor in this part. There is no clowning around in the film. We don't get a shot of that 1000 watt smile of his. Quan is nearly a broken man, and he fights back the tears and memories in a way that reminds us that Chan is not just an athlete but an actor as well.

Brosnan gets a chance to act as well. He is reunited with the director of his first 007 outing, Martin Campbell. Campbell has twice revived James Bond, first with "Golden Eye" and then a dozen years later with "Casino Royale". He knows his way around material like this. There are some great action sequences true, but he also gets the drawing room show downs right as well. He may not be anyone's idea of an auteur, but he clearly knows his way around a movie like this. Brosnan is good as the duplicitous minister with a hidden agenda that ties into the events but also shows how good outcomes can't necessarily justify bad deeds.

"The Foreigner" is a well made , standard issue action spy film that is elevated by the presence of the two stars. It may not play well for MI-5's public relations but those of us who like to see justice done in the cinema world, now have one more film to add to the list. Now can we please get that Jackie Chan, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham movie going? If Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell are available, let's cast them too.

Happy Death Day



A horror film for 14 year old girls. It's not particularly scary, it's not as funny as it could be, and it is designed to mock those things that the Queen Bees do in belittling and mocking the other girls. It is so derivative of "Groundhog's Day" that it actually mentions "Groundhog's Day" at the conclusion of the film. There is little to recommend here despite the fun idea of stealing the Bill Murray premise. 

From the moment the film starts, the screenplay fills every crevice with suspects. "Tree" our birthday girl, has what appears to be a drunken night with a handsome but apparently socially outcast stranger. Her sorority house is filled with women who might have reasons to hate her, or at least think they do She is having an affair with one of her professors who is a medical doctor, and she meets his wife when they are almost caught in a clinch. She is dodging her Father's birthday call and brunch appointment. Oh yeah, there is also a serial killer who has been caught and is being treated in the hospital, we learn this from a news broadcast in the background.

If the repeated deaths that "Tree" has to endure were a little more creative, this could have been a lot more fun. It is only the automobile sequence that seems to care about providing thrills. The college mascot of the University she attends is "The Babies" which explains the creepy masks in every dorm, frat, office and locker room on campus. The murder sequences and red herrings are standard stuff and it just does not pop out at you the way these movies need to. This is another case of PG-13 undermining the point of the horror film.

The one thing that the film does manage to do is humanize "Tree" the same way that Bill Murray's "Phil" learns a little humility. When the film starts, you are not going to have a lot of sympathy for her, but as it progresses, she starts to recognize the bad choices she has made. She can see the "bitch" in the mirror and she tries to rectify that persona as part of the process of discovering who it is that repeatedly murders her. It';s not a great reason to see the film, but it does give it a little bit of emotional substance.

The rules of the repeating universe she finds herself in are not very clear. The injuries she sustains disappear, except when they don't. In one scenario she kills herself, and that seems odd. Her motivation for that action is partially explained, but why she thinks that solution is better that stopping the whole process is not clear at all.  I probably should not worry about inconsistencies in a movie like this, but sometimes those thoughts creep into your head and then the story premise gets undermined. I saw this on Friday, and there was a pretty big crowd, it's so embarrassing to be part of a species that will see this movie but not bother with "Blade Runner 2049".

Monday, October 9, 2017

Movies I Want Everyone to See:Into the Night

Inspired by this films recommendation on "The Forgotten Filmcast" I have slipped this in a bit earlier than it was scheduled to show up. This is another of my "Movies I Want Everyone to See" series that was originally published on the defunct site "Fogs Movie Reviews" in the Fall of 2013.

Poster 2
Review by Richard Kirkham
"Into the Night" is a film that I recommend for a somewhat narrow range of reasons. Although it is referred to as a comedy, action, thriller, it barely qualifies in each of those categories. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot that is funny about the movie, and there is some action and tension along the way, and what could be more thrilling than seeing Michelle Pfeiffer at the peak of her beauty and charm? The real reason to see this movie however is the tour of Southern California culture from the 1980s that you get along the way. It is a very loose film with some nice sequences and dialogue but as a film it seems to lurch forward and wander around the story at times, but oh what interesting times.



intothenight2
An essay over at A.V. Club, classifies this film and several others, as films which fit into a particular genre, actually called into the night films. The classification is based first on story line. The lead disappears into another subculture, usually starting with a night time excursion. The second point the essay suggests is that these mostly eighties films are sociological examinations of the conflict that the baby boomer generation feels over the rejection of the values championed by the counter culture of the 1960 and 70s by the preponderant culture in the 1980s. It is an interesting point and as a paper submitted in a graduate writing class in Cinema, it probably scored the author an A. Let's extend their point for one more comment, all of the films that were mentioned (with the exception of two John Hughes films which probably don't fit) were culturally marginal as well.
Henson_IntotheNight_001When this film was released it received quite negative reviews from the critics. The New York Times was very dismissive but Roget Ebert went one step further, giving the film a single star rating on his scale. Both reviews focused on the insider nature of the movie. The film features cameo appearances by a variety of Hollywood types, including at least 17 film directors. The suggestion here is that the film was mostly an excuse to get a bunch of friends together and have an extended party at the studio's expense. It is not possible to say for sure that this was not the case, but it can be said that those guest shots are not distracting from the movie. While sometimes the interjection of these actors, directors and writers did turn the movie into a game of "spot the hidden celebrity", that added to the fun of the premise and emphasized what the movie is about. The subject here is Hollywood itself.


IntotheNight251A quick plot summary: Ed Okin is an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia and job burnout. After he discovers his marriage is even less than he thought it to be, he drives to the airport to clear his thoughts, maybe with the idea of going to Vegas for the night. Just as he starts to fall asleep in his car in the parking structure, a woman screams, jumps on the hood of his car and asks for help. Men are chasing her and guns are blazing and he reacts instinctively by driving her off. That woman is Diana and it turns out she is involved in a smuggling escapade. The two of them travel around Los Angeles for the next twenty-four hours, trying to figure a way out of the predicament they have become trapped in. The plot involves Elvis impersonators, high stakes gambling,film production, real estate, high end shopping and the fall of the Shah of Iran. As you can tell, the movie meanders and touches on lots of different elements.
Here is the real deal for you though. You have to pay close attention because it is not front and center of the movie. The subject of the film is how the City and the Hollywood community work. Jeff Goldblum's character Ed, is an engineer in an industry in Southern California that the Hollywood people think is boring. They show him at his job, being disinterested, he complains about not caring himself. To the showbiz world, this validates their view of themselves. Unlike Ed, "We are exciting", "We are different every day". Diana is a beautiful woman who came to Southern California in all likelihood to be a star. Instead she falls into a relationship with a rich older man. There is a cliche of Hollywood that you can see everyday as you drive through town. Later, the older man seems to discard her, another Southern California dream gone bad.

Into the Night 2As you watch the film progress, you get a travelogue of L.A. area haunts, usually of the rich. The yacht of Diana's older lover is in Marina Del Rey. She and Ed visit a set in Hollywood and meet up with one of her friends who got into the Biz, by sleeping with the producer. They suffer the indignity of being escorted off the set and of being rejected by her brother, whose connection to the entertainment business is as an Elvis impersonator.  Later in the film they stroll through Beverly Hills shopping district and spend some time in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. There is a car chase through Century City, in that most annoying of L.A. locations, a multi-storied underground parking garage. If you are from the Southland you know that a parking garage is a necessary anathema. This is a car culture and Ed and Diana end up in the most unlikely vehicle in L.A., a taxi. To make matters worse, the taxi is chased through a parking garage which residents hate, since free parking was at one time a birthright of Angeleno's (those days are long gone). It wouldn't be L.A. if there were not a beach scene, so we get a murder in Malibu. The whole movie is really a critique of the L.A. lifestyle.

into the night synwEverywhere in the movie are L.A. references. In the opening sequences there are radio shows playing in the background  and defining what the radio was like in Southern California. People from out of the area will not understand why they are watching references to car salesmen in commercials. Pete Ellis was ubiquitous  on TV at the time, he had car dealerships in all the major American brands at some point or another. Most of you probably have a commercial jingle or two stuck in your head. Those earworms are often a result of repetition. "Pete Ellis Dodge, Long Beach Freeway, Firestone Exit, South Gate." It doesn't sound all that memorable, but you put a catchy tune behind it and play it fifty times a day on the local TV stations it will be. Twenty five years after that dealership went away, the sound is still ringing in my head. Cal Worthington is famous in So. Cal for his silly TV commercials where he mocked another car dealer who put his dog in commercials selling cars. Cal's dog "Spot" was a tiger, an elephant, a killer whale. He would do really loopy things like wing walking and then put them in the ads. "Into the Night" is filled with those late night TV ads in the backgrounds of several scenes.
Bowie Into the Night
Another odd reference to show business, is a fight to the death between two characters played by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Carl Perkins and David Bowie. This was Perkins only screen appearance and he is a natural. Bowie of course had made several movies at that point and several more since. In the sequence where they face off, the TV is running in the background, playing an old Abbott and Costello movie. So two icons of pop music are dueling for attention with classic comedians who made movies. It is an odd juxtaposition but typical of this movie, directed by John Landis, a fan of horror films especially. If you were not aware of it, Landis uses the phrase "See You Next Wednesday" as a signature in all of his movies. Here it is on movie posters in the trailer that Ed and Diana get escorted out of. The line comes from Kubrick's "2001". It is no accident that movie references populate this film, even to the point of providing a distraction from a violent fight scene.

There are extended segments in Beverly Hills, both in the shopping district and in the residential neighborhoods. Fans of "Chinatown" know that the plot of that classic is mostly a giant real estate swindle, well it turns out that this movie is heavily involved in that same business. The jewels are supposed to help secure financing for a real estate deal being pursued by rich "Iranian" refugees. Large numbers of said refugees found homes in Beverly Hills and so the sound of Farsi being spoken in the stylish salons of Rodeo Drive was not unusual. It turns out that Jack, Diana's rich patron, is also involved in real estate and that brings some strings of the plot together at the end.
intothenightscreen1The end of the film takes place at the location that most visitors first encounter the city, the Airport. LAX is always busy but we don't typically have shoot outs there (although it has happened). The odd way in which the stand off resolves itself is again spurred on by Ed's manner. Through the whole picture Jeff  Goldblum plays Ed as if he is exhausted and can barely be bothered to respond to the events taking place around him. The casualness is another one of those L.A. critiques, nothing really seems important to anyone, except the business. The rich and powerful control the political process, the lower level functionaries are corrupt, and the beautiful people get to make their own rules.

"Into the Night" is not an essential movie, but it is one that I always want people to see because it is a tour of the world that I lived in at the time. It features an odd leading man, and a beautiful leading lady, wandering around the city that I both love and hate. There are plenty of amusing bits and pieces that often have nothing to do with the story, they are just a chance to visit at a touchstone of 80s L.A. culture. The scene at Ships Coffee Shop has nothing to do with the story, and everything to do with where you can go in the middle of the night to get dessert. There is no reason to hide the jewels at the flower market, except that then viewers will get a chance to see the flower market. Jake Steiner is in the movie because he turned being a trainer for Harrison Ford into a career as a pitchman for physical fitness (and getting into the business). A movie with a different plot but a very similar look at L.A. almost fifteen years earlier is "Hickey and Bogs". In the place of Goldblum and Pfeiffer, are Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Maybe it will justify a little analysis down the road, right now I mention it just wanted to show that these sorts of films do repeat themselves and reflect the changes of the city over time. "Get Shorty" in the 1990s and this years "This is the End" cover the same themes. A lot of bad stuff can happen here but if you make it in the movie business , you'll be alright.into the night publicityRichard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049



I have a huge sense of Deja Vu with this picture. The advance screening we went to last night is foreshadowing some potentially unpleasant news for the studio that invested in this sequel. This is a movie that has been promoted all to hell, and at a 9:00 screening there were maybe two dozen people in the theater to see it. When I asked at the concession stand about the crowd that evening, the two girls said that there was a big crowd earlier, but they were all coming to see "Mully" , a specialty release. The employees didn't even know what Blade Runner was. Thirty-five years ago, we went to an opening night screening of this new Harrison Ford film, and in a giant one thousand seat theater, there were maybe three hundred people. The 1982 Blade Runner tanked, and although it has a strong cult following and an impressive revisionist legacy, I'm a little concerned for how this new edition will do.

Director Denis Villeneuve was responsible for last year's "Arrival" a film that placed highly on my end of the year list and the promise of Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford cemented this as one of the most anticipated films of the year. At least for cinema fans, as we are learning, there are fewer and fewer of us out there as every new movie platform launches. I hope I am wrong, because this is a solid film and deserves a wide audience, but I will understand if it follows it's predecessor down the path of box office failure but cinematic glory. In many way it has the same strengths and weaknesses of the first film. 

Blade Runner 2049 starts off with a cinematic technique that is not very encouraging. We get a title card with four paragraphs of exposition, moving on to the screen accompanied by the ominous score. If the film has to tell us what is happening instead of showing us, that is a danger sign. This movie doen' even have a narration or character tell us the information, we have to read a preface. Once the story gets started however, things look a lot more promising. Actor Dave Bautista, who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine,shows up in the opening section and there is a piece of action that seems about right for the start of the movie. The updated technology of the spinner car is displayed in bright light rather than in rain and the dark, and a mystery is introduced. So far so good. The follow up on the mystery is not so good. We do not ever understand exactly the relationship of Bautista's character to the rest of the story, In fact, it is a red herring but a very confusing one. This is just the start of a great deal of muddled story that detracts from the characters and helps make the visual splendor of the film it's main selling point. [This should start to sound familiar to all you fans of whatever cut of Blade Runner.]

"K" the Gosling character, is a different kind of Blade Runner. We find out when he first encounters his targets and that ask him how it feels to hunt down his own kind. I don't think this is a spoiler since it comes up in the first few minutes of the film. His supervisor, the frighteningly stern Robin Wright, treats him only slightly better than a vacuum cleaner, although she clearly sees his utility and respects his work. Their relationship is set up like the traditional over bearing police supervisor and rebellious underling, except that "K" doesn't really rebel and Wright's "Madam"  doesn't below as much as she scowls. They both participate in a reworking of the digital picture enhancement scene from the original film, and later Gosling repeats the procedure again in an outside context. Some more echos of the first film.

Very much as "The Force Awakens" mirrors the first "Star Wars", 2049 is hitting some of the same beats as the original film more than three decades later. "Luv", the assistant to the owner of the company that makes the replicants which are now more compliant than their older versions, is a combination of three of the characters from the first film, Pris, Zhora and Roy Batty himself. Ultimately you will hate her but there is a strange attractiveness about her methodical manner and diffident smile. Niander Wallace is the blind genius behind the new version of the Tyrell Company, and since he uses floating electronic eyes to see, he feels like a combination of J.F. Sebastian, Chew, and Tyrell himself. He speaks in obscure terms and platitudes. Jared Leto comes across as creepy villain but one who will rely on his creations to carry out his dirty work.

There are three or four plots going on all at once, but they don't always gel into a coherent story. "K" loves "Joi" a virtual reality companion. Luv is protecting "K" at times and attacking him at other moments. Lt. Joshi, referred to usually as Madam, seems to be aware of a plot, but unwilling to pull the curtain back to reveal it. There is also the thread of a replicant revolution in the offing. The procedural of following leads is sidetracked by new sub-cultures or  background world building that gets more and more obtuse. It may all ultimately make sense but it will probably take the average person two or three viewings to figure it out. The question is whether anyone will be motivated to do so. This movie is almost three hours and it is not a fast three hours. This again mirrors the original film, which was deliberately paced and not action heavy. There are lengthy discussions between characters which are often meant to be so high context that the audience might well believe they are supposed to be excluded from the conversation.

So far it probably doesn't sound much like I enjoyed the movie. In fact I did and it is marvelous in a lot of ways. I just want to be out front in pointing out that the story is problematic and the script not very engaging. What is engaging however are some of the performances, the great visual design of the film, and some of the world building that was only hinted at in the first movie. The combination of effects and characters are fascinating in several places. There is a great scene when a pleasure model replicant and  the virtual reality companion, share space so that "K" can have a tactile relationship with the object of his desire. It was a great creative moment and the effect looks a little like a misaligned 3D shot. The set designs in the future abandoned Las Vegas are also pretty spectacular. Hinting at the future of our current obsession with drinking, gambling and old time entertainment.

The women in this film make the strongest impressions. Villeneuve manages to make an initially lovely villainess more and more reptilian as the story develops. actress Sylvia Hoeks provides a face that is made for molding into beauty and fear at the same time. Ana de Armas is the virtual Joi and she feels like the most real character in the plot. She is a voice of reason, a love object and the lady in distress all at the same time. Gosling is a fine actor and holds his own against the ladies, up until the arrival of Harrison Ford in the last hour of the movie. Ford's Deckard is familiar from the first film. He wants to remain detached, he is very smart but also has some of the limitations of humans, and he has had three decades to drink all the whisky he wants. Ford manages to upstage everyone else in the film even though his screen time is very limited. His scenes with Leto have a James Bond quality as he is interrogated, but he does not have any bravado or fear to throw up as a defense, he simply has his own weariness to assure him that he will win out in the end. Ford seems physically formidable for his age and there are none of the acting crutches that he uses in his other performances here. He did not phone it in for this one.

If you treasure the first film than you will probably love this one as well. Once you get used to the bombastic electronic score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, you will be able to delight in the dense city backgrounds, stark farming landscapes and idiosyncratic technology of the future. It is a smart science fiction film with some good notions of what makes us human, but it is layered in a story that is murky and slow.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

American Assassin



Certainly not fun in the way the "Kingsman" films are, never the less this is a satisfying spy thriller with enough of a story to keep us engaged and a couple of characters that give us some rooting interest but not a lot of sympathy. The action is reminiscent of  the style of the Joh Wick movies but without the irony and gore fetish of those movies.The film is so serious that modern audiences might not recognize it, because it is not a parody or a send up or pastiche, it is a drama. It is told in a straightforward manner and I don't think these is a single moment in the film where you will catch anyone winking at the audience.

American Assassin is not for everyone. I have read two or three of the Vince Flynn novels that feature the lead character Mitch Rapp. He is not James Bond. He is a dedicated killer, committed to wiping out threats to America. There is no nuance to his attitude and people looking for the grey zones between who is right and who is wrong should seek their entertainment elsewhere. Mitch is just going to kill the bad guys, and he is not stylish about it but he is efficient. Young Dylan O'Brien does not look like the Mitch Rapp I had in my head, but this is an origin story and if the series gets a chance to continue I'm sure he will mature into the role more. Seven years ago, Taylor Kitch would have been the choice for Mitch in this film, instead of the bad guy "Ghost". So it makes sense to cast him in the role of a former agent that has gone rogue.

The plot is not particularly unique except in the way it can visualize a world where Iranian operatives might cooperate with the CIA. The ultimate target of the attack is also somewhat interesting although it seems a by inconsistent with the character. The opening scene with an attack on tourists at a beach resort is brutal and may seem a little too real in the way it is depicted. The terrorists are indifferent machines, going through the process of killing as many people as they can. The personal psychological trauma inflicted on our nascent "hero" is understandably sufficient motivation to shed himself of the humanity, a characteristic that distinguishes Rapp from other characters in this genre. Much of this film takes place in the light of day and I enjoyed getting a tour of Istanbul that was maybe a little brief. The more extended tour of Rome was a nice compliment to the nighttime tour we got in "Spectre" a couple of years ago. Both of these cities are highly photogenic and they are different enough for this type of film to tale advantage of.

The real draw for people who make an effort to see this will be Michael Keaton. I really appreciate having him as an onscreen presence in films so much more often these days. Those of us who remember his debut in "Night Shift" will be amazed at the spectrum of characters he has ended up playing. As the hard as nails CIA trainer Stan Hurley, he manages to be believable, even when he is being tortured. His no nonsense approach to personnel will probably not endear him much to real CIA recruiters but as a film character he is exactly right. 

Most of the film is SOP when it comes to these sorts of stories. There is one really great fight scene in a speedboat that makes a creative contribution to how these stories are told There is a solid use of real physics in the fight that is the closest we come to a cinematic shot in the film. As the high speed boat rockets across the water and it encounters a large wave, the combatants are thrown into the air and off of their attacks momentarily. It's not something I've seen before and that's why I appreciated it so much. Frankly, I'm not that complex when it comes to this kind of film. I root for the Americans, I enjoy the revenge plot and I was satisfied with the action beats. This is not a film that you would call artistic or great, but it is one that will leave people who want to have this kind of experience, sated.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle




Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of "Kingsman:The Secret Service". I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, "The Golden Circle" enters this year's movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. "The Golden Circle" is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In "The Secret Service" there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It's just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain's plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy's so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton's Eggsy and Firth's Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong's character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum's character "Tequila".  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal's "Whiskey" has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn's signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John's scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can't quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. "The Golden Circle" however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don't know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Right Stuff

Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall 2013
 right_stuff_ver2
Review by Richard Kirkham
Kids of my generation all had the same heroes, astronauts. We watched the launches and splash downs on television both at home and at school. Everyone knew who John Glenn was and the Moon landing in July of 1969 seemed like the greatest day in history. A lot of kids followed test pilots and experimental aircraft like they were ball players with statistics. By the time the Vietnam War was finally run out, and Watergate had drained us of much of the respect we had for our government, the space program had shriveled in size and Skylab had tumbled back to Earth. Astronauts had become at best technicians in the sky and often faceless. In 1979, Tom Wolfe published "The Right Stuff" which reminded us all of what it took to be an American Hero in the Space Race. The rights to the book were snapped up and plans for the movie began. Four years later emerged a film that would be called by many one of the finest films of the decade. It is not a forgotten film, but in many ways it is a neglected film. Readers on a site like this might know the movie intimately, but casual movie audiences are often unfamiliar with movies that lack a cult following or came out before they were born. Let's see if we can work on that.


right_stuff_ver1"The Right Stuff" is a terrific entertainment that I think too many people think of as a history lesson. It traces the origins of the space program from the test flights of jet planes in the aftermath of the Second World War, to the most dramatic points of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The fifteen years that span the story do include a number of historical events but they are told in an entertaining way, which while not always accurate may give us a clearer view of history than any textbook is likely to achieve. Part of the problem the film faced from the beginning was the tie in that was made to the political process. A year before the 1984 Presidential election, John Glenn was an active candidate for the Democratic nomination. Time Magazine featured a cover picture, not of Glenn as an astronaut but of actor Ed Harris playing Glenn. Rolling Stone did an in depth article on Glenn that they titled "The Right Stiff", making a connection between his Boy Scout reputation and the forthcoming film. By the time the movie came out, it was viewed by many as a political story that might have an impact on the election. The ad campaign did little to distance itself from such a perception, featuring as it did, press conference shots and dramatic images of astronauts walking down a hallway plus a couple of posters making the characters out as Mount Rushmore type figures rather than real people.

Phillip Kaufman was partially responsible for Raiders of the Lost Ark and is credited along with George Lucas for the story. He also did the excellent remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in 1978. He was not the first choice for directing this film and it appears that there were some contentious behind the scenes issues when it came to putting the movie together. Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman had his script dumped after a meeting with Kaufman and composer John Barry could not understand what Kaufman was looking for in the music for the film. He wrote his own version of the script, focusing on elements from Wolfe's book that seemed to favor the original test pilots out at Edwards Air Force Base as the last of the men who had "The Right Stuff". In the end he manages to bring the two parallel experiences together, and make all of the featured historical characters have that little bit of personal quality that defines them as real American heroes.

Perhaps his greatest directorial decision had to do with the way in which the flight scenes would be visualized on screen. Eschewing the use of animation and computer technology to a large degree, the flight sequences were largely done using techniques that had been pioneered during the days of Buck Rodgers in the 1930s. Models were flown on wires, chemicals were ignited on the outside of models, real jet flames were fitted into wooden life sized models of test craft. Real footage of rocket flights was combined with material produced for the film to give life to the successes and failures of the early space program.
the-right-stuff-shepherdChuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier is the main hero in the film, despite the fact that he is limited in the amount of screen time his character receives.  Yeager is the real deal, last year on the 65th anniversary of the sound barrier breakthrough, he repeated the experience, at age 89. In the movie he is portrayed by playwright and actor Sam Shepard. The part earned him an Academy Award Nomination as a quiet man who had a keener sense of the destiny of manned space flight than many of those in the space program itself. (Look for the real Chuck Yeager in the bit part of Fred, the barman at the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) The other breakout role belongs to Ed Harris playing John Glenn.  We get to understand Glenn's quiet charisma through Harris' subtle work. The one scene where he breaks out in a human conflict works because he has been such a steady and quiet presence through most of the film up until that point.

The movie is packed with wonderful actors doing excellent work. Scott Glenn and Fred Ward are two actors I am always happy to see because I remember them from this movie. Glenn plays first American in space Alan Shepard. In addition to Tom Wolfe's book, I have read several biographies and autobiographies of the astronauts of the 1960s, Shepard's "Moon Shot" is a great read and I saw Scott Glenn in every story that Shepard shared in his contributions. Gus Grissom was one of the first American casualties in the space age, and I would like to think he was the surly yet good humored man as played by Ward. The other astronauts get brief moments, with Dennis Quaid's  Gordo Cooper receiving nearly as much time as the big three of Harris, Glenn and Ward.  Fans of "Aliens" , "The Terminator" and one of my favorites "The Quick and the Dead" will be able to pick out Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra, who is mostly background for the Mercury Seven.   Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer have small roles as NASA advance men, David Clennon is a publicist for the Air Force, and Donald Moffat a very familiar character actor plays L.B.J.. Royal Dano, the sonorously voiced character actor who did the voice of Abraham Lincoln for the Disney attraction, has a part as the harbinger of death.rstuff06

Let's not slight the ladies either. The cast of women who play Mrs. Honorable astronaut is equally impressive. The hugely undervalued Pamela Reed has one of her best parts as Cooper's long suffering wife. Veronica Cartwright who has worked in the business since she was a child (The Birds and Leave it to Beaver) has her best role outside of Alien playing Betty Grissom. Barbara Hershey is beautiful and tough as the woman that Chuck Yeager names the X-1 after. The wife of the cinematographer was cast in the part of shy and stuttering Annie Glenn, Mary Jo Deschanel is also the mother of Zoey Deschanel the "doe eyed It girl" of the decade. Oh yeah, Kim Stanley and Kathy Baker are also in the cast, it was Baker's first cinema role and Stanley's last.

What all these talented people managed to do was to bring history to life. Not the history of a textbook but the everyday drama of people who happen to be living through history. The seven Mercury Astronauts became famous before they ever went into space, but they were men who had strengths and weaknesses like any one else. Those characteristics are integrated into the film in a very effective way. The tender scenes between the Glenns feel real even though we were not privy to them in history. The struggle of the Grissoms, after Gus's capsule is lost, may be exaggerated but it feels like a slice of reality television as we watch them cope with a less than perfect mission. Most of the astronauts ended up in second and third marriages and we get to see how the strain of being an American Icon could contribute to a failed marriage. The movie is filled with humor as well. Some of that humor is of the gallows type as the astronauts face the dangers that were space exploration. Some of the humor is a little juvenile but reflects the way they tried to blow off the pressures they are faced with. The Air Force song and Marine Hymn have never competed in a more hysterical way than in the medical evaluation scenes in the middle of the film.

There are plenty of technical accolades to spread around as well. The costumes and sets were top notch. The sound and editing won the Academy Awards for that year. Bill Conti who is best known for writing the "Rocky" theme, won the Academy Award for best score for this movie. It is a somewhat controversial decision because much of the music was cribbed from other classical composers. Conti  made sure that all of them were credited so that he was not accused of plagiarism. The theme he came up with is integrated with the other music seamlessly and that probably accounts for his winning the award. Just as an aside, he was the conductor of the Academy orchestra who got ignored/dissed by Julia Roberts the night she won her Academy Award for Erin Brockovich.


9.-The-Right-Stuff-Philip-Kaufman-1983There are some incredibly iconic moments in the film. There may have been earlier uses of the shot, but this was the first time I remember seeing the men walking abreast toward the camera shot in this manner. Clearly when they are all in their flight suits and helmets, moving down the long hallway, we have some men on a mission. Those men can be seen to be serious. The shot has been done a thousand times since and it is parodied quite often as well but this was the first time I can say I was impressed by the idea. I won't say it was invented here but I will say it was perfected.
Again, I don't know that it first appeared here but it was the earliest vivid image I can think of of a man walking away from a crash or explosion and not turning back.




Chuck Sam Shepard's Yeagar barely escapes from a fiery crash and he walks across the desert floor toward the rescue vehicle coming for him, he has a determined look and never glances backwards. Levon Helm, the drummer and sometimes singer for "The Band", played Yeager's buddy Ridley  gets a great come back line that tells us who really has the "Right Stuff" as the ambulance pulls up. Helm also did the narration of the opening and closing lines of the movie and his voice is perfect for the tone of the film.

Had the movie been a bigger financial success, I'm sure it would have mopped up at awards time. The lack of box office tainted the film a bit so that it is critical success that defines it today rather than awards. Those of you who have read my material before know that "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Jaws"  are my two favorite films. This would probably make my top ten list most days. More important however is the fact that this is the favorite film of my spouse of 33 years. Had I not made this recommendation I would have to answer to her. "The Right Stuff" is on regular rotation at our house with a couple of viewings a year. You should revisit it if it has been a while, and if you have never seen it before, what is wrong with you?


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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

35th Anniversary Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan



One of the great movie experiences of my life was seeing Star Trek the Wrath of Khan when it opened in 1982. I was a huge fan of the original series and when the first film came out I was there on opening day. A lot of people seem to be disappointed in Star Trek the Motion Picture, but I ate it up and the audiences turned out in droves. Despite some lingering negative feelings it was a huge hit. In spite of the fact that Wrath of Khan was the second film in the series, it felt like the film franchise was being rebooted. The action was going to be more dramatic, the uniforms for the Federation were dramatically different, but the best thing about this film was that it would focus so much more on the relationship between the three main characters on the Enterprise.

Admiral Kirk is unsatisfied with a desk position in Star Fleet. Spock is now the Captain of our beloved ship, and Dr. McCoy continues to be the kind of sage friend that both of them need to have in their lives. The film begins with a fake out on the rumored death of Spock, and then gradually refocuses on the melancholy that seems to hang over Kirk as he faces the fact that he is indeed getting older. The Enterprise is a cadet training vessel and it suddenly gets called into service and Kirk, McCoy and Spock are reunited on the bridge that we always want to see them at. There are the usual crew aboard and a new character that held the promise of important things to come. One of the old crew is now the First Officer on another Federation vessel ( or wessel as he was likely to pronounce it) , Captained by actor Paul Winfield. In the process of finding a location for an important experiment, they happen upon an old nemesis of Captain Kirk and the fireworks begin.

So many Star Trek tropes are introduced in this film that it already feels like the start of a new show. This is the film that gave us the Kobayashi Maru, the refusal to accept the No Win scenario, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", "I have been and always shall be your friend", "Khaaannnn", the old Klingon proverb and a dozen more. Kirk gets a lot of back story with the introduction of two other characters and the effect is to make the film even more personable. The biggest impression however is made by the guest star returning to a character introduced in the original series, Ricardo Montalban. He not only steals the Reliant, he steals the movie with his bare chest and long flowing white hair. Montalban spews out the lines with an elegance at one moment and a spiteful vengeance in the next. He is the embodiment of the genetically engineered superman that supposedly practically conquered earth in the 1990s, two centuries earlier. He mixes Shakespeare and Melville and still is convincing as he outwits and is outwitted by Kirk.

The first time I saw the film was at the National Theater in Westwood on opening day. It was a beautiful wide and large auditorium with a gold motif and curtains. It was famously the Theater where "The Exorcist" first played in Los Angeles, and it was only just now that I discovered it has been torn down for almost a decade. The movie was packed and the sound system was terrific. The impact of the film on me at the time was profound. Characters that I had loved were getting old or dying, the ship that we marveled at is severely damaged, and there is a bagpipe salute that will bring a tear to any stout hearted Trekker.

The Fathom event that put this back in Theaters featured a so called "Director's Cut". Nicholas Meyer who is responsible for putting the movie together with one fourth of the budget of the previous film did a fantastic job in 1982, but there were a few things he was unhappy about. The final scenes of the casket on the Genesis planet were filmed and added against his wishes, he wanted Spock to stay dead. According to the information being screened before the movie, he has subsequently acknowledged that he was wrong and that the scene works for the series. Most of the additions are small moments with a single line or two that elaborate on the characters motivations or fill in a plot element. The best additions were some small scenes that clarified that cadet Preston is Scotty's nephew and then Mr. Scott gets a better dramatic scene after the first attack on the Enterprise.

Before the program this evening, I watched the Original Episode "Space Seed" last night. Khan's impervious nature in that show has given way to personal vendetta in the film, and that works really well given how the plot sets up his situation. William Shatner was interviewed for about twenty minutes as an extra for the event and he was entertaining and eccentric as heck. He conflated a couple of the movies as he was talking about them, but he was an impressively sharp 86 year old. He seems quite vital and he keeps pretty busy. Kirk was always my favorite on the show. Spock was the popular character and I loved Leonard Nimoy, but let's face it, Captain Kirk was about as close as you could get to James Bond in space. He had a string of lovelies across the galaxy and he got to ham it up on a regular basis. His shouting of the name exemplifies the theatricality of his performances but also fits with the nature of his character.

Frankly, I may not stop smiling for a few days. From the first notes of James Horner's score with the Alexander Courage theme woven in, to the Amazing Grace electronic music at the end, I was hooked. This is another commercial for a video release, but it is exactly the kind of value added commercial that makes me want to spend my money and reward everyone involved. The word is given, Warp Speed my friends.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

It



I have seen a building enthusiasm for this film since the first trailer appeared. It has a startling look in the most famous scene from the story, and it is enough to get buzz going for the film. A few weeks ago, as I was watching another Warner Brothers film, they played a five minute sequence from it as a promo for the movie. That short segment was terrifying and amped me up for this movie in a way that I was having a hard time believing. I like some Stephen King properties but I have never anticipated them like a Star Wars film, but something here got under my skin. I am writing this a couple of days late because I have been traveling. We saw the film in one of the Thursday night early screenings and it was packed. This movie is clearly going to be huge.

All that said, I may be bursting a few floating red balloons with this next statement. "It" is not as frightening as you hope it will be, but it is better put together and acted than you have any right to hope. Not having read the book or seen the mini-series that was made from it, I have no reference for how the story is supposed to play out but there are a couple of things that are obvious right away. This movie is really a coming of age story with some fantastic elements and those are designed to scare us almost as much as the daily horrors that are part of growing up. All of the kids in the story are outsiders who have been labeled as losers. Each one is a stereotype that we have seen in other movies before. The sensitive nominal lead is a kid who is struggling with the loss of a beloved sibling. There is a chubby kid with a heart of gold and the soul of a poet who will be overlooked as a romantic interest in spite of being bright and charming. We have a needy Mama's boy who is a little to cowardly to be that shallow and will reveal himself as more than he appears before it is all through. The four other kids include a girl with a secret, the one Jewish kid in town, and a geek with a severe case of coulrophobia and let's not forget the one black kid in the neighborhood as well.

This version of the story begins in the eighties. I understand originally it was a fifties setting so that the adult part of the story would be contemporary for when the book and TV movie came out. The update does a couple of things,. First it will allow the adult story that is going to follow this chapter of the saga to take place in our times. More importantly, it sets the kids story in a period where nostalgia runs deep for modern film audiences. One look at this group of kids and there will be visions of "The Goonies" running through the minds of Gen-Xers and millennials. There is even a sly reference to the John Hughes films that so absorb the geek film audience of these times. All of this is managed with some splendid child performances by the young cast. Finn Wolfhard plays Richie, the geek with a filthy mouth. It is certainly no accident that the thing he is known for is the Streaming series "Stranger Things", a show that wallows in the same sort of 80s nostalgia.Jaeden Liebeher is Bill, the central character who has guilt issues that mimic King's character Gordie LaChance from "Stand By Me". He is a solid child actor, I have yet to catch up with his performance in "Midnight Special" but he was memorable in "St. Vincent" a film I can easily recommend.   Sophia Lillis is the right combination of tough girl and sensitive soul. Her character's story is probably the darkest of the kids and she plays it as a delicate balance of fear and openess. The performer who really steals the movie for me was Jeremy Ray Taylor, who plays Ben, the new kid who also happens to be the chubby kid. His struggle to talk to a girls, walk his bike and hold onto a school project at the same time is a perfect rendition of a kid at that age. His character has been well written but he was also nicely cast and the impact on the audience i a couple of spots shows that he may have generate the most empathy of anyone in the story.

The elephant in the room is Bill Skarsgård, the actor who portrays Pennywise the dancing clown. We get hints of the history of this character but nothing more than musings. Whether he is a real monster or a creation of the id of all these characters, Pennywise will do for clowns what Clark Gable did to undershirts in "It Happened One Night". Along with John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise does more to justify fear of clowns than anything else I can think of. Skarsgård has a distinctive lilt to his voice in this film. At times he sounds almost like a benign entertainer, but one look at those eyes and that deceptive smile and kids will run. The most frightening part of the film happens at the beginning of the film when cute as a button Jackson Robert Scott playing little brother Georgie, meets Pennywise at the storm drain. All the other horror moments in the film seem conventional in comparison to the exchange of dialogue and the slow paced bad choice that Georgie makes. The plaintive expression on the clowns face belies the evil that resides there and the quirky voice pattern makes us doubt that there is any danger at all. The crawling of your skin however should be enough to make you run in the opposite direction.

Like most horror films, every few minutes the audience is provided a jump scare or a sequence of building tension with a visual hook to it. None of these moments contains the same gut level terror in that opening moment. There is one scene featuring an old slide projector that comes close but too much has been revealed in the trailers to make it work as well as it should. At the climax, there is a little more of Pennywise and his dialogue than is advisable. The more tangible the character is, the less frightening he seems. As I said earlier, this is more of a coming of age film than a fright fest. The confrontation at the end makes this feel more like an action film and less supernatural, in spite of all the supernatural elements.  I still quite admire the film, it's just that it is less of what I was hoping for and more conventional than I wanted. Still it is a quality picture and if clowns creep you out to begin with than maybe "It" will succeed in giving you the nightmares that I somehow missed out on.  


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lambcast: MOTM "In the Loop"

My contribution is minimal but the conversation is lively and filled with quotes from the film.



Monday, September 4, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 40th Anniversary



In 1977, Star Wars was the big film in the science fiction genre. It dominated the Summer season and took off as a cultural artifact that continues to resonate today. The likelihood that another science fiction film would come on the scene and impress in the same ways seemed remote, but Steven Spielberg was just at the start of his career and the third major motion picture he directed was going to wow us in ways that were very similar to his pal George Lucas' little space opera. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is grounded in the everyday reality of audiences at that time. It was not set on a distant planet with space battles, it was taking place in our backyards, in Mexico, India and at a National Monument in Wyoming. The special effects were very different from "Star Wars" but equally compelling. When the Mothership shows up for the climax of the film, it almost makes you forget the space battles around the Death Star.

The film opened in December so it was a Holiday release and it did gangbusters business. It made more than a $100 million with maybe 300 screens during it's opening run. In 1977/78, that was real money. Three years later in a re-release in a "Special Edition" it added another $16 million. This week's run will add a smaller amount to the total but I think it is impressive that a 40 year old film still draws in enough customers to make a mark on the contemporary charts. The reason is simple, it was a great film in 1977 and it is still a great film, 40 years later.

Steven Spielberg is the consummate film director of the last fifty years. He may be rivaled creatively by directors such as Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers, but his track record of film success plus creativity is unparalleled. "Close Encounters" is entirely his baby. Although he has contributed to a few other film scripts that he directed, this is a solo credit, his only one. The inventiveness of the story and the odd way that it plays out building suspense as to what is happening to our sad hero is a testament to Spielberg's creativity with story. Of course his directorial choices are outstanding as well. From the start of the movie, when a black screen is accompanied by an otherworldly note, held for a moment but increasing in volume until a crash and then the screen fills with a desert sandstorm image, we are hooked. The mundane but complicated work of air traffic controllers, talking on a radio with the flight crews of airlines, depicted on a black and green screen as a set of numbers, comes across like a tense mystery with just enough humor to make it memorable. Finally in the opening sequence we meet the Neary family, who are like all of us. Their home is average, cluttered, and filled with loud kids and distracted parents. The floor of the boys bedroom may be one of the most accurate pieces of set design ever. At the heart of this story is Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfess, his second time in a row playing the Spielberg persona on screen in a Spielberg movie.

What happens to Roy on this night changes everything. His relationship with his wife and kids will be damaged in ways that look beyond repair, but it happens slowly. If Quint was obsessive about the Great White, well he had nothing on Roy Neary and the vague form that he keeps seeing in his food, bed and bathroom. At the start of the film he is a well meaning father who kiddingly threatens one son while trying to help the other one figure out fractions in an interesting way. He wants his kids to share the magic of his own childhood experiences and the recurring theme of Pinocchio is introduced. It is only a few days later that he indifferently trashes the house where they all live in a quest to figure out the symbol in his head. His oldest son is embarrassed and lashes out when Roy can't control his frustration and desperation. His wife, the wonderful Terri Garr, is mildly supportive but is also trying to protect him from himself. As much as there is to celebrate at the end of the film, there is plenty of tragedy to get us there. Roy's actual encounter is brilliantly shown with practical effects in the truck he drives for work and the fantastic conceptualization of the UFOs he chases that first night.  Spielberg then allows him to undercut his own experience with a clever second encounter that is not at all what it seems. This is another writers touch that is well realized by the most sympathetic of directors.

There are a few moments that will leave modern audiences a bit bewildered. Roy trying to navigate using folded maps and not GPS is a pretty good example. At a official inquiry, a newsman points out that the absence of photos of UFOs is not proof of their non-existence any more than the absence of  pictures of planes or cars crashing denies that those things happen [these days, that kind of film fills the evening news]. There is a great humorous sequence when the investigation team needs to read some map coordinates and instead of going on-line, they have to roll a giant globe from a government office to their workspace. So the technology might be dated but the story hold up well. Can we trust the government to tell us the truth? Do we know all there is to know about space? Are some crazy people maybe not crazy?  Roy gets lumped in with a guy who believes in Bigfoot and that's enough to discredit him in a lot of eyes. He does discover an ally in Jillian, who has lost her son Barry to the visitors. Barry's disappearance is one of the sequences in the film that is iconic and it was really frightening. It was a moment that made you think this film could go anywhere and any point. 

Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the distraught mother who also had the same kinds of obsessions as Roy. When the two of them finally work together as they arrive in Wyoming, you can feel the us versus them bonding between the two characters. Director François Truffaut was cast as the main scientific leader of the UFO team, and he works mostly because of his language barrier. Bob Balaban as the cartographer drafted as Truffaut's interpreter also acts as a surrogate for the audience on the inside of the plot. This dual approach to the story might give away too much but because Jillian and Roy don't connect till late in the film, and Balaban is sometimes unclear on what is happening, the suspense is maintained.

The climax of the movie is correctly remembered for the technical proficiency of the special effects and design teams and the outstanding score by John Williams. Williams has a huge number of Oscar nominations but probably fewer wins than he deserves because he was frequently matched against himself. This was one of those years. While most of the time he probably cancelled his competing nominations out, the classical score for Star Wars was not likely to ever be forgotten. His work in this film however is equally sublime and used in such a creative way in the story that maybe he should have received a co-screenwriting credit with Spielberg.   Vilmos Zsigmond won the Academy Award for the cinematography of the film, but there were several other photographic geniuses that made contributions as well including: John Alonzo (Chinatown), William Fraker (Wargames),
László Kovács (Paper Moon), Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Allen Daviau (E.T.), and a half dozen others.

There are many themes that you can pull out of this film and all of them feel like that could be the central focus. In the first part, mystery is at hand, in the second act it is obsession and the third transfers to both paranoia and hope. I always see this as a film that is ultimately about how the world can potentially be brought together by an event of this magnitude, or conversely how it could tear us apart. That dichotomy is the script again by the director himself. There are a hundred little moments that deserve more attention, and I hope that despite the fact that this is the first time I have written about this film, it won't be the last and those moments will have some light shined on them as well. 

Addendum:

My friend Eric on the East Coast took his son to see this for the first time, while I was taking my daughter to see it today. Eric is a fine writer and he put together a nice post with a heartfelt message to Mr. Spielberg at the end. You might want to look at it here.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Harrison Ford Draft on the Lambcast Podcast




I was a last minute substitute on this podcast and lucked into the first pick.
I wonder what I should choose.
Take some time and go vote for my slate of Harrison Ford Films HERE.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard (NSFW Trailer listed)



Normally on this site we try to keep it at a PG-13 for the readers. If it is something I am writing, than I want it to be in my voice and I use vulgar language in a fairly narrow spectrum of circumstances. The trailer above however is an accurate reflection of the vulgarity and coarseness of the interactions in the film we are talking about here, so if you can't guess how the maestro of the "MF" word does in this film, the clip will give you plenty to chew on. Reynold's character actually suggests that Jackson is single-highhandedly ruining the word.

This kind of movie is mostly bulletproof. It is not critic friendly, it will be obvious as to what is going to happen, and it will offend a few people both intentionally and unintentionally. It will also entertain you for a couple of hours while you enjoy a refreshing beverage and some popcorn in a cool theater on a hot day. I prefer my popcorn with a good amount of butter flavoring and then I dump in a box of Hot Tamales to sweeten things up. The popcorn taste, mixed with the sweet but spicy candy is solid, but as the candy gets coated with the butterflavoring it adds an extra texture to the treat. If you are dieting, you should not go to see this film, because it demands that you consume things that are not good for you but taste delicious.
Mosaic electronic poster at Hollywood Achlight

Ryan Reynolds has become a very successful film star, although his most successful film is also one of his most recent. "Deadpool" has a few things in common with this movie, an irreverent sense of humor and a willingness to go for big action, but otherwise they are very different films. Samuel L. Jackson could make this movie in his sleep. He simply brings his usual bravado and colorful vocabulary and supplements it with the kind of gleeful violence we used to get from "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. The premise is simple, a professional bodyguard ends up trying to protect a contract killer that has crossed his path before. This is a bickering buddy film, each character has quirks that make them appealing and repulsive, and we spend a lot of time with the two of them togeteher matching insults.

If there is a pretender to the crown of "Most Colorful Cursing in the Movies", it might be the character played by Selma Hayek in this film, plus she does it bi-bilingually. If you ever feel a bit overwhelmed by the language, let me suggest some Junior Mints to go along with the popcorn. A refreshing mint might take the edge off of the palate enough that you can tolerate a few more curse words, in at least two languages.

Now leaving the snack bar menu for a bit and talking about the movie, I will say there are a couple of things that were nice about the film. The locations for the last act are in Amsterdam and take advantage of the city's quaint architecture and street layouts. There may have been an Alister MacLean film that used the canals of Amsterdam for a chase, I have a vague childhood memory, but it was certainly not as elaborate a chase scene as we get here. The integration of  boats, cars and motorcycles made for a terrific sequence. The main problem is that there are at least two more car chase scenes after this and neither is as exciting. Gary Oldman is in this thing collecting a paycheck and playing another evil villain. His part is so underwritten that when he gets to the big moral equivocation his character launches into, we are already laughing before Samuel Jackson does.

Mostly, I'm just filling space here. There are some moral qualms you can have about using genocide as a plot point in a comedy, and the use of vehicles as terror weapons may be offensive as well. This movie is too silly to take seriously. Go get a refill on your Dr. Pepper or other beverage of choice. Don't worry about missing anything while you are gone, they will still be cracking wise and shooting crap up when you get back. As a matter of fact, you might want to go to the bathroom as well.