Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trailer of the Moment: The Weekend They Didn't Play Golf Edition

After finishing James Dickey's 1970 novel, Deliverance, I gave the Blu-Ray of John Boorman's 1971 film adaptation another viewing. The film, whose screenplay was written by Dickey himself, is extremely faithful to the source material save for one exception, an excised first chapter that takes place the day before the ill-fated canoe trip that provides the back story of all the characters and the history of their relationship to one another.

Boorman's (or Dickey's screenplay) decision to discard the opening chapter is actually a wise one as it results in the four men becoming archetypes of modern masculinity (circa the early 1970's) and blank slates to which the viewer can identify with in broad terms, be they the jokester, the overly machismo outdoorsmen, the sensitive type or the everyman, thus making the visceral experience when the shit hits the fan more powerful.

Interestingly, the trailer for the film actually includes a rather faithful presentment of the excluded back story and professions of the four men.

Here's the trailer, and did I mention that you got a pretty mouth?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing February 1980

Here are the films that opened the month the US Hockey team had their miracle Olympic win in Lake Placid.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Island (1980, Michael Ritchie)

Part of the 1980 Project

With the producing team of David Brown and Richard Zanuck and author Peter Benchley adapting his own novel with an ocean setting, Universal Studios must have had visions of the worldwide success of Jaws dancing in their head when they scheduled The Island (1980, Michael Ritchie) for release on June 13th, 1980, a week before the fifth anniversary of the premiere of the Steven Spielberg directed classic. However, unlike Jaws which had a clear and primal plot, iconic archetype characters and a director with a strong grasp on the material, The Island is a frequently awkward film that suffers massive tonal issues. It was a notorious box office disappointment and collected a handful of Razzie nominations. While it's not as bad as it perceived reputation suggests, my interest and leniency towards it is mainly as an anthropological curio of the nascent days of the summer blockbuster.

Blair Maynard (Michael Caine), a reporter and deadbeat dad, talks his editor into allowing him to travel to Florida to investigate the disappearance of yachts and boats along the Bermuda triangle. It being the weekend he's stuck with 10 year old son, he brings the kid along under the guise that they are going to DisneyWorld. Alas, they are kidnapped by a batch of modern day, broken English speaking pirates led by David Warner (bad guy du jour of the late 70's/early 80's--he also played the heavy in Time After Time and Time Bandits), who are responsible for the various attacks that Maynard came to investigate. The pirates brainwash the son, turning him into a gun totting member of their brigade and keep Maynard chained up, planning to use him to impregnate the women on the island since centuries of inbreeding has led to an inability to conceive (a plot point partially borrowed by the writers of Lost). Alas, Michael escapes and plans to go medieval on the gang's asses and get his son back. All in all, not one of the father and son's better weekends.

Both the structure, and especially the tone, of The Island is all over the place. The simplistic and pirate centered plot seems aimed at children and the rousing Ennio Morricone score portends a high-falutin' pirate adventure yet they are the villains in this piece; the film features ample nudity and sexual situations as well as excessive violence and a high gore quotient, garnering an R rating which would prohibit viewing of the audience who would probably appreciate the film the most, kids.

While Caine has the bemused smirk evident in most of his paycheck roles (see 50% of his 80's work, including Jaws the Revenge), the rest of the actors play things serious, as does director Ritchie, with one strange exception, when a speedo clad white dude attempts to fend off the armed mercenaries with kung-fu, complete with overdubbed grunts.

Spielberg and Jaws are the perfect combination of director and material. While he's been accused of pandering (an equally apt and disputable claim that is nonetheless irrelevant in the matter of Jaws) he knows when to add humor and/or humanity, when to show the shark, how to amp suspense and most pertinent, how to compose a shot for maximum effectiveness. While the practice of toning down violence and gore in horror films for a PG-13 rating has neutered some films, Spielberg deft decision to fight for a PG rating for Jaws (the PG-13 was not introduced until 1984) led to the film's massive success, as kids home from summer repeatedly saw a movie that made the rebelliously daring claim that it may be "too intense for some kids". Michael Ritchie, though far more experienced a director in 1980 than Spielberg was in 1975, and having had a good deal of success in the 1970's with pictures like The Candidate and The Bad News Bears, has a clear talent for comedy, but no clear stylistic strength, especially in regards to suspense, where he's particularly weak. He shoots the boat attacks too dark and frantically, and lacks a sense of pacing. These scenes, obviously most crucial in a action/suspense movie just unfurl, often times incoherently.

While major studios have gotten better at researching their success probabilities and marketing their high concept films since 1980, the fact remains: is anyone clamoring to rewatch The Island other than silly people with silly goals like me or for nostalgic remembrances? It was considered a major critical and financial fiasco at the time, and was never given a US DVD release, but really, while dumb and uninspiring, it's pretty much on par with about 80% of the films that get released by major studios in the summer months today. Can you imagine for example feeling compelled to watch the 2005 Michael Bay film that share the same title (though it's not a remake) in 2035? Truthfully, I am getting to the point where I'd rather watch an interesting failure than a mediocre success most days of the week, and of course, a great film above both of those options, the problem is, the middle choice is increasingly becoming viewers' only option. A trend that existed long before 1980, no doubt about it, but nonetheless a trend that became more prevalent during that decade.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

Like Velvet Underground before them, Big Star (original lineup: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Steve Ray, Andy Hummell) were a favorite amongst critics, record collectors and musicians that were destined to not be discovered or embraced by a larger audience while still in existence. One of the few rock bands to be signed to the legendary Memphis soul label Stax!, who subsequently didn't know how to promote them, Big Star crafted perfect power pop melodies with just the right tinge of melancholy. They never found success in their lifetime, but have a rabid and loyal cult of followers who grow larger by the day.

Among the artists that they influenced are R.E.M., Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo, and most famously The Replacement who wrote the song dedicated to the group's singer that I quoted for the title of this article. Big Star's greatest exposure occurred when their song "In the Street" played over the opening credits of the long running FOX sitcom That 70's Show, though the version heard is a cover by Cheap Trick.

Big Star only recorded three albums, but all three: # 1 Record, Radio City (the first two are often packaged together) and Third/Sister Lovers are essential.

Most tragic of the timing of Chilton's passing was the fact that he had reformed the band (sans Chris Bell who left the band after their debut and died in 1978) and was scheduled to play SXSW this week.

Here are a handful of my favorite Big Star tracks, including September Gurls, the first song I ever heard from the band back around 1995.

"September Gurls"

"The Ballad of El Goodo"


"Stroke It Noel"

"Take Care"

And finally, The Replacements song "Alex Chilton" from their 1987's Pleased to Meet Me album.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing January 1980

With my recent resurrection of the 1980's Project, I thought it would be intereseting, fun or even educational to look at the posters for movies that premiered each month of the year 1980. The scheduled date is per the film's United States theatrical release.

So let's start our catch up with a gander at what the cinemas across America were playing in the first month of 1980.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inside Moves (1980, Richard Donner)

Part of the 1980 Project

Inside Moves is the most leisurely conceived and smallest budgeted film of director Richard Donner's career, which after 15 years in television, officially kicked off in 1976 with the horror hit, The Omen. Coming in the wake of being fired from the first Superman sequel he had already started work and filming on by its producers the Salkinds, the change provided Donner a brief respite from the rigors of the high profile blockbuster game and a chance to show some dramatic flare. Presented at first as a sparsely plotted character study of a man trying to rehabilitate his life after a failed suicide attempt left him crippled (which could possibly serve as a metaphor for Donner post-Superman brouhaha) the film sails along nicely at the start until some late second act narrative mechanics get tossed in, eventually leading to it's ruin as the director's worst audience pandering instincts kick in for the final, insufferable act.

In a city outside of San Francisco, it's never actually named that I caught, but I assume Oakland, though most of the film was actually filmed in Downtown Los Angeles and Echo Park, Roary (John Savage, The Deer Hunter) steps into a highrise building (the Eastern building) and jumps out of the top floor. After recovering to the point that he can walk again, though with a noticeable limp, he finds himself at Max's bar, located near the hospital, which is the watering hole for the residing handicapped community. Roary strikes up a friendship with the sunny disposition bartender, Jerry (noted character actor David Morse in his debut film) a once promising basketball player whose career was sidelined by a leg injury; as well as a flirtatious relationship with barmaid Louise, with whom he shares not being emotionally ready to go a step beyond flirting. Jerry, whose leg may be repaired via a costly operation, is in a destructive relationship with a prostitute (Amy Wright, Wise Blood) but too timid to ask his old buddy, a successful NBA player with the Golden State Warriors, Alvin Martin, for the dough. To cut this synopsis short, Roary gets Alvin to pay for the operation, Jerry's career is resurrected, first with a semi-pro team in San Jose, then a call up to the Warriors (a quick career path to the majors that is probably still a possibility today considering the sorry state of the Warriors, actually David Morse, you should call them). On the road to fulfilling his dream, Jerry abandons Roary and the other Max's bar regulars, who are the typical quirky fun loving and smack talking handicapped people that reside in unimaginative screenwriters minds.

As suggested in the first paragraph, the film is at its best when it's focused on the burgeoning relationship between Roary and Jerry, and later, Louise. Savage has a strange onscreen presence, part brooding cipher, part ham (the best example I can surmise is to picture a role that encompasses both ends of the Al Pacino spectrum, with The Godfather part II being on one side, and Scent of a Woman at the other) and good chemistry with Morse, who is still a little raw, and Diana Scarwid, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Nominee, who gives a nice performance that she imbues with a sense of depth, even if her character as conceived is half-baked and saddled with contrived doubts about being in a relationship with the "crippled" Roary, not to mention an unnecessary romantic triangle with Jerry the filmmakers thrust upon late in the game, a completely uncharacteristic turn only there thanks to screenwriters Valerie Curtin and future director Barry Levinson needless desire to add some sort of dramatic arc to the final act.

And the final act is where everything unravels. It makes sense for Jerry to have some trepidation about coming back to the bar, having it remind him of a low period in his life or even thinking he's "too good" for the place now, and the writers hint at that, but the film's major point of conflict is presented in the same manner as a straight out of Lifetime movie-of-the-week moment where Roary pretty much cuts Jerry down to size by saying he might be crippled in his legs but Jerry is...dramatic beat..."crippled in here" (points to heart). The film would've slightly redeemed itself from that embarrassing moment if it ended in some ambiguous or open ended manner, which didn't seem out of the realm of possibility given that it never really emphasized what led to Roary's suicide attempt other than his feeling of "nothingness". But no, instead we get the manufactured everything is going to be great for everybody conclusion, Roary and Louise are going to live happily ever after, Jerry's going to be a big basketball star and the quirky group of handicapped bar denizens are going to stay their quirky self. Most egregiously however, Inside Moves concludes with a bit of cruelty at the expense of minor characters, as Roary, to the delight and pleasure of all, trips Jerry's old girlfriend's pimp and his cronies, who earlier beat Jerry up, causing them to spill down a flight of stairs at the basketball arena...and wait for the punchline: be possibly irreversibly crippled! Ha ha ha!!!! What respect for the handicapped! I guess having the son of the devil and Lex Luthor as heavies in his prior movies made Donner presume he needed to have some sort of comeuppance receiving villain.

With the exception of the opening scene: the suicide attempt, which is the most cinematic in the entire movie, relying as it does solely on the imagery, movement and the dreamlike fall from the building, the film is shot, by cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs, in the soft focus style of late 70's/early 80's soap operas. Which to some extent, it is. John Barry, most famous for composing the James Bond theme, lends a serviceable, but unmemorable score.

Inside Moves was not a big success for Donner, and he spent the rest of the decade making high concept blockbuster films such as Ladyhawke, The Goonies, Scrooged, the Lethal Weapon series and immediately following it, The Toy. Most of which were box office successes. Donner will never be considered an auteur, but he's skilled at adapting a style to whatever best serves the screenplay. His mind is set to think of the general undemanding audience and their expectations and desires first and foremost, which is what makes him the right man for Superman, but not for a internal character study such as this.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

YouTube Find of the Moment: Hitch's Cameos

I have spent a good amount of time and energy here complaining about modern theatrical exhibition practices and trends in Los Angeles (and have another screed in me, schedule permitting) but there are not a lot of places left in America where one can catch a showing of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur at 9:45 on a Thursday night, and for that I am thankful.

If you've seen the underrated comparatively against his oeuvre Saboteur, you may remember it having one of the more difficult Hitchcock cameos to spot, thankfully someone took the time to lodge all of Hitch's cameos into one video compilation on YouTube.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Last Metro (1980, Francois Truffaut)

Part of the 1980 Project

One of his last films, he would follow it with Confidentially Yours and The Woman Next Door before passing away at the age of 52, The Last Metro finds the French auteur and New Wave movement forefather Francois Truffaut continuing the transformation from the narrative and cinematic playfulness of his earlier work such as The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player to the more classical Hollywood style he started a few years prior. It was a sharp contrast to his Cashier du Cinema and Breathless co-writer Jean Luc-Godard (the two apparently had a falling out in this period) who was (and still is) experimenting more with cinematic forms and embracing avant garde over typical narrative mechanics. While this may get me labeled a heretic in certain cinefile circles, I've always had a rocky relationship with Godard, I appreciate his explorations on an intellectual level, but dilettante that I am, I often wish they would come within the context of a narrative instead of disrupting it. That said, Truffaut did not quite posses the talent for the classicalism that he embraced, and a little more oomph in direction would elevate The Last Metro from a solid film to a potentially great and more potent one.

Set in a playhouse during the Nazi occupation of France, The Last Metro depicts the production of a play, "The Disappearance", in a theatre owned by an actress (Catherine Denueve) and her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennet) who was a noted theatrical director, but is now hiding in the theatre's basement and directing the play by proxy. An idealistic actor (Gerard Depardieu), who is unbeknownst to most, also a resistance fighter, provides romantic entanglements.

With the exception of an opening and closing montage narrated by Truffaut himself and a closing dénouement that slyly plays with our expectations, the film unfolds in a straight forward manner, even to the point of not emphasizing some of the more tense laden sequences through the use of music or framing, just letting the natural drama play out. As a student of Hitchcock and having employed strong use of tension in The Bride Wore Black, I felt Truffaut missed some opportunities here.

Shot in warm colors, with red being the prominent hue, the film appears to have been shot on a sound stage, which is a little disconcerting when our perception of the large scope of most World War II films is taken into effect, but this was probably a deliberate attempt to mirror the theatre more than cinema, and in a twist, the most cinematic framing and color sequence come from within the staged play itself.

While Truffaut's style may be more muted, two of his pet themes are thoroughly explored: the politics in the act of artistic creation (this was to be the second part of a trilogy that included Day for Night detailing the process of a creative endeavor, the final film was to concern a music hall) and a romantic relationship that is tested through circumstances and a third party. With the exception of Inglorious Basterds, this is the only film that I know of that discusses the Third Reich's desire for artistic superiority, with the irony being that they forced the fleeing or death of some of the most creative and vital artistic presence because of their nationalism. A line in the sand is drawn here as a person's artistic worth in The Last Metro is measured by their conscience. The protagonists are the creative talents such as the director in hiding whose life is being preserved through his art and the antagonists, most glaringly the French critic whose a Nazi collaborator is regarded as prissy and lacking a sense of artistic merit gauging value, and who most egregiously is late for the play he reviews!

The romantic subplot which involves a triangle between Deneuve, Bennet and Depardieu felt forced and not properly set up considering what a big role it plays in the final act. Though I like the suggestion that Deneuve's character who is risking her own life for the safety of her husband and their theatre to the point she's willing to sleep with a Nazi officer when it might save him may have fallen a bit out of love in the duration, it's never depicted onscreen in either their warm relationship or the chemistry between the two actors. Denueve is wonderful here, and while I am not the type to go around saying somebody deserved an Academy Award because I realize that Awards are pretty much a popularity contest, but she deserved an Academy Award nomination. Depardieu, who was also in Maurice Pialat's Loulou (review here) and Alan Resnais' Mon Once d'Amerique in 1980, possessed a strong screen presence, and even though the script never really develops his character to the fullest extent that we ever understand all of his motivations, his rugged charisma masks those deficiencies and make the mysteriousness of the character seem intentional.

While Truffaut's stylistic choices may have been more milder, his passion for the art is still palpable going into his final five years, and I look forward to catching up with his final two films. I wouldn't steer anyone directly to The Last Metro if they hadn't seen the complete Antoine Doniel series, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Day for Night, or The Bride Wore Black yet, however, for those who have, it's a worthy stab at classical storytelling.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Return of the 1980 Project

A little over two years ago, a certain blogger, let's call him "me", shared a certain geeky goal, let's call it "seeing as many films from the year 1980 as possible, review them and then when reaching some sort of non specific endpoint, creating a top ten list for the year, resolute in the comfort that having devoted so much effort, his list would be well informed" [the author will now permit, as per custom for comedic beats, a break for the reader to gather him or herself after the resulting guffaws. We good?] And lo, it was great, the heavens opened, peace was found amongst all religions, the blogger's site counter went up a whopping 2.1%, somebody left a comment.

But then seemingly just as quickly as it came, there was silence. A vast nothingness. A week went by without another 1980 film review, then a month, then two months. The author of the blog, though well intentioned, took singular blame for all the world's ills save the rise of the Tea Party movement. It wasn't from lack of continued dedication to the cause, merely lack of documentation as attested by half-written reviews for Nine to Five, Cruising and Heaven's Gate amongst others that were aborted before they could fully blossom.

The author when pursued for a comment, nay an excuse, replied with a statement that called to mind some of our greatest American heroes from Ben Franklin to J.D. Salinger to Omar Little, "shit done got in the way".

On January 1st of this year, we celebrated a fresh start, a new decade, and most importantly, the 30th anniversary of a year we refer to as Nineteen Hundred and Eighty. Noting the timing, the blogger found a renewed purpose and vowed that the 1980 Film Project shall rise from it's ashes like a phoenix, or a zombie, but a slow moving Romero zombie, not one of them fast running type.

Then let this serve as an announcement, or if the mood strikes you, a warning. The 1980 Project shall be resurrected beginning in the near future. Watch the skies! And, you are welcome!

Click on this link for the original Declaration of Intent Statement.

Click on this link for the Archives of the 1980 Project.

I will be seeing my dreams.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Trailer of the Moment/The Percy Rodrigues Files: Shivers aka They Came from Within (1975, David Cronenberg)

Shivers, released in the United States with the more titillating title They Came From Within, may technically not be David Cronenberg's debut film, however, it is the first to have, to paraphrase the Coen Brothers, "that certain David Cronenberg feel". While his 1986 remake of The Fly is often regarded as an AIDS parable in its depiction of the desecration of the body, had it not predated the first noted case of the disease by a good half decade, Shivers could share a similar reading as it depicts the transference of a parasite through sexual interaction.

The film has similar stakes with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead; they both find characters fighting off zombified throngs in a confined space that represents luxurious excess, a mall in Dawn, an upscale high rise multi-use condominium on an island near Montreal here, and it's interesting to note that Shivers predated the Romero film by three years. Though Dawn may be the more accomplished film, only Shivers is brazen enough to end (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, obviously) in a zombie orgy!

Due to it's low budget (the film was financed in part from a Canadian tax incentive) the film is a little rough around the edges, but Cronenberg's commanding skills of special effects incorporation and creating tension and unease along with the driving thematic element of "body horror" that would drive a number of his most celebrated works including The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash and Videodrome, are all already on display. Future Ghostbusters director and fellow Canuck Ivan Reitman produces and Black Sunday's Barbara Steele co-stars.

The US trailer features a familiar narrator, Mr. Percy Rodrigues, who makes yet another one of his patented bold proclamations, this time it's: "If this picture doesn't make you scream and squirm, you better see a psychiatrist!"

He's right.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Posterized: Woody Allen 1990-2009

After making films for only two studios between the years 1971-1990, United Artists and Orion (and he only switched due to his relationship with the executives who founded Orion from his United Artists days), the last seventeen plus years have seen Woody Allen films being released by a myriad of studios, including Tri-Star, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, and Dreamworks to name a few, yet he has still maintained his breakneck one film per year average, and with a film already completed for a 2010 release, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and another one in pre-production (to star Owen Wilson), he shows no signs of slowing in his seventy-fifth year.

There may be no disputing that the quality of his work has diminished in the last twenty years, the 2000s input is especially paltry in that respect, but every now and again he's still capable of capturing some of his mojo as 2008's Vicky Cristina Barcelona showed.

In addition to Vicky, I would also highly recommend from this period Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown and Match Point. And additionally I have some admiration for Alice, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mighty Aphrodite, Small Time Crooks and Melinda and Melinda.

Alice (1990)

Shadows and Fog (1992)

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Celebrity (1998)

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Small Time Crooks (2000)

Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Hollywood Ending (2002)

Anything Else (2003)

This above poster is amazing, too bad the movie doesn't deserve it!

Melinda and Melinda (2005)

Match Point (2005)

Scoop (2006)

Cassandra's Dream (2007)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Whatever Works (2009)

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