Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

For 2002's STAR WARS EPISODE II:  ATTACK OF THE CLONES, the action and special effects are as strong as the acting from leads Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen, and Natalie Portman, is indifferent and weak.  This is not a shot entirely against the actors, all of whom have done fine work elsewhere.  It is what they have to work with that is the culprit - another blah screenplay by the director.  And marionette George Lucas guides his talent with the hand of an experienced hack, rendering his high profile space opera little better than a made for video B-movie with an unlimited budget.  I'll bet it was dispiriting to be part of this enterprise, and it shows in the actors' performances.  Phoning it in.  Shouldn't this have been a thrill of a lifetime for its cast? To be part of an historical film series?

CLONES was among the first movies to be shot entirely digitally, on a high definition 24 frame per second system.  Speaking of excitement, a group of friends and I drove with anticipation to Orlando for a premiere.  An enthusiastic young emcee introduced the film like a fanboy who could barely contain himself.  He explained the digital process, how film stock was becoming passe. How we were "about to see colors that we've never seen".  Yes, it looked sensational, but hardly unprecedented.  The content defeated any potential for a "wow" experience.  The tech just wasn't enough.  I was reminded that night of the time I went to the Cinerama Dome in L.A. to see WILD WILD WEST, a wretched film.  I had to seize the opportunity to see something, anything in that historical theater with its wide, concave screen, but when the movie ain't there, it just doesn't matter.

EPISODE II picks up ten years after the close of its predecessor.  Obi-Wan (McGregor) and Anakin (Christiansen) are enlisted to protect Padmé (Portman) after an attempt is made on her life.  While Obi-Wan travels to the ocean planet of Kamino and beyond to investigate (and uses the old Jedi mind trick on a slythmonger), Anakin and Padme trek to her home planet of Naboo, where romance inevitably blossoms.  To say that their scenes are wooden is being generous.  A far cry from the sparks between Han and Leia, the latter of whom is of course, Padme's offspring.   That is not to say that mom doesn't exhibit pluck and spunk, but Portman seems lost and bored.  Christiansen is earnest but boring.

Exhibiting considerably more life is Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, a Jedi master and eventual turncoat for Darth Sidious.  His rebellion against the Republic leads to the Clone Wars, a battle involving multitudes of interplanetary systems which have seceded from the Republic. Yep, more droids.  Obi-Wan eventually discovers Dooku's betrayal and nefarious deeds.  Later renamed Darth Tyranus, the traitor engages Obi-Wan, Anakin, and even his old Master Yoda in an elaborate battle with lightsabers, in a nicely articulated sequence. As I said, the action is solid in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, especially the rescue scenes.

Along the way, we also travel to Tattooine where Anakin discovers the fate of his mother and meets his step brother Owen Lars (recall EPISODE IV).  Anakin's discoveries will lead to his unleashing of unbridled rage, a precursor of what's to come.  This story thread does offer some development of the drama of the young man's downfall, but could've allowed more scenes that were less melodramatic to flesh it out.  I realize that the original STAR WARS saga was based on old Westerns and campy serials, but Lucas would've done better to follow that other influence, Kurosawa, a bit more with these prequels.  It seems that the Creator was so enamored with his palate of technology that he forgot what made the saga so compelling in the first place.

And again, what held my interest was the observation of the development of the characters who are held dear from the original trilogy.  As I watch those films, I study the faces of Obi-Wan and Yoda. Think on Darth Vader as he chokes Empire underlings and engineers construction of rebuilding of the Death Star.  By that time, all had endured a lifetime of struggle.  How their thoughts must haunt them. Vader will recognize the shred of good left in him by RETURN OF THE JEDI.  As mediocre as Anakin is drawn in the newer films, it's still fascinating to see the origins, where in the timeline the corrosion began.

But considered overall (along with Episodes I and III), I'm afraid this comic says it best:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Breakfast Club

There are few movies that define Generation X movie nostalgia love better than 1985's THE BREAKFAST CLUB.  Writer/director John Hughes' anthem of teen angst immediately resonated with high schoolers of all cliques and social circles, some of whom were represented - broadly - in the movie:

1.  Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez): Popular campus jock.  Driven hard by his father.  Self-described as a race horse.
2.  Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall): Brainy geek, nerd.  Wears high water pants. Member of the physics club.
3. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald): Popular, wealthy.  Brings sushi to lunch.   Gets detention because she got caught ditching class to go shopping.
4. John Bender (Judd Nelson): Degenerate, troublemaker.  Comes from abusive household.  Keeps marijuana in his locker.
5. Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy): Reclusive "basket case", kleptomaniac.  Eats popcorn sandwiches.

The treatment must've made Universal executives nervous: Five high school archetypes sit around talking during a Saturday detention?! That's it? A majority of the movie's action occurs in a libraryThere is no sex, no nude scenes. There are drugs, cuss words, pop songs, and boatloads of attitude.  Hughes found just the right rhythm with this piece, this almost opened-up-filmed-play kind of movie.  The characterizations were rich on paper and nailed in the portrayals of the well selected Brat Pack cast. You might even say that each actor was never better than they were here.   And Hughes knew his audience.  We're still quoting the movie today.

The dialogue is sharp.  It always was in a Hughes film.  Sometimes harsh.  Even when things got silly in movies like SIXTEEN CANDLES and FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF.  The characters were far more intelligent than in your average youth comedy, and had conversations about things besides getting laid (although that is discussed as well, albeit more thoughtfully, for the most part).  Peppering those exchanges were phrases like "neo-maxi zoomed dweebie" and "locked in a vacancy".  

THE BREAKFAST CLUB, in many ways, hasn't aged well.  For all of its timeless observations on school politics and socioeconomic mores, the film feels like a relic shoved into some old box among clothes from Merry Go Round and Wham! cassettes.  Sure, the fashions, the music, the slang. Sooo '80s, but obviously that is the appeal. ... But it's just so...packaged. Compared to other, looser "hang out" pics like DAZED AND CONFUSED and OVER THE EDGE, it just seems a bit antiseptic.  Cliché ridden.  Hughes ties things up a bit too neatly by the end.  Some moments are just embarrassing, especially Andrew's calisthenics (and Wilhelm scream) after he puffs on some weed.

But, we're left with the feeling that this Saturday was a special moment in time, a perhaps singular event where social divisions were severed.  Prom queens and geeks could share a laugh (and a joint).  During the climax, as each character shares something painful about themselves, the probability that Claire will ignore the likes of Brian, John, and Allison in the hallway Monday morning is addressed.  That's realistic. Is there anything more urgent for a teenager than acceptance and confirmation by your peers?

That thought hangs over the remaining minutes of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, leading to Bender's walk across the football field, fist in the air.  The five characters had a treasurable moment, the kind that sadly is all too rare.  Maybe they realized it, maybe they just forgot about it.  Until they were older and in a reflective mood.  Too bad there never was a reunion sequel.  I think many BREAKFAST CLUB fans have already written their own.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blazing Saddles

Quite possibly the quintessential (though arguably not the best) Mel Brooks movie, 1974's BLAZING SADDLES has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the funniest comedies of the 20th century, inviting comparison even to Marx Brothers films, though the Three Stooges might be a more accurate reference point. I say that in love, as amongst their relentless silliness many potent social points were made.  Does Brooks achieve a similar result?

If you asked me several years ago, I would've disagreed.  I was one of a handful who just did not share everyone's enthusiasm for what I considered an amusing but far-from-classic send up of Westerns.  What was so damned funny? The infamous campfire scene, where several cowboys are munching on baked beans and, er, creating some music? So many refer to this, explain how incapacitated with laughter they are.  I find flatulence as funny as the next guy, but it's tricky in a film.  Without getting too disgusting, let me say that fart jokes rarely work in movies, T.V. shows, YouTube videos, etc.  They're too staged - part of the hilarity comes from their unexpected intrusion at an inappropriate moment in an inappropriate place.  Contrived farting is no funnier than contrived anything else.

But this is Mel Brooks, the guy who'll do most anything for a laugh.  The desperation got even worse in his later films like HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I and SPACEBALLS.  While there were many very funny gags in those and other films, there were many more dead silences, more tired meta jokes and fourth wall breaking that got old quickly.  Satire is a word used to described Brooks' films, and while accurate it's just too easy to spoof things without creating original humor, or at least having a fresh perspective on what is being satirized.

Brooks achieves this with BLAZING SADDLES.  My recent viewing was a pleasant surprise - despite an abundance of disposable bits there is some pretty astute observation at work.  Mainly race relations. It's the Old West in the late 1800s.  Cleavon Little portrays Bart, a black railroad worker saved from the noose by State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and "Gov" William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) in order to become sheriff of a frontier town.  Lamarr correctly assumes the townspeople will be outraged that a man of color would be so appointed and predicts that Bart will either be run out of town or killed, allowing Lamarr to buy up the land cheaply.  

Indeed, the folks of Rock Ridge don't take kindly to a "nigger" wearing a badge, having authority.  But Bart is a sharp one, quickly winning over his town (which admittedly is filled with dimbulbs) with his quick wit and ingratiating manner.  He is assisted by Jim, a super fast (though often drunk) gunslinger who is known as the "Waco Kid" (Gene Wilder).  They will team up to stop Lamarr and his gang of thugs, a battle that somehow eventually ends up crashing through the Warner Brothers commissary and out onto Olive Avenue in Burbank.

Many celebrate BLAZING SADDLES for its endearing silliness and puns ("Hedley!"), but underneath the inside jokes and cheerful vulgarity is a sharp conviction of those who discriminate, honestly believe they are an inerrant species.  Watch it closely next time.  There are long scenes with Little and Wilder that eschew easy jokes and reveal some deeper ideas.  Several moments throughout the film, actually.  That Richard Pryor was one of the screenwriters (and originally set to star in Little's role) should give you some idea of the fire within.  It's a film that could never be made as is these days.  Brooks agrees, stating that if you removed the word "nigger" from the screenplay you'd simply have no movie.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Turning the Page

So another few years had passed, and I found myself loading cardboard boxes again.  And again.  There went our two car caravan, hauling things we wondered why we owned in the first place.  But this time we did manage to purge the never read books and seldom worn clothes with greater success.  The load was still far from light, but there is a satisfaction in knowing that Goodwill and a few local churches (and a few neighbors) have richer storehouses as a result of our latest move.

I see that my promise to keep you updated on condo life was mostly unfulfilled.  Sorry 'bout that. There really wasn't enough to sustain regular entries on the topic, but here and there a bit of excitement occurred.  Like the elderly couple upstairs, whose stove caught on fire.  Or the two incidents in one week of armed robbery a few years ago.  The wife of one of the victims yelled at me one morning because the guy we hired for some work parked his truck backward into a space. Everyone was spooked post incident and were on high alert for suspicious license tags, I reckon.  Unfortunately, she caught me on the wrong day and I fired back at her, harshly.  Sorry 'bout that, too.  But thankfully, no further crimes (to my knowledge) occurred.   Our community was gated and well patrolled.  I always felt safe there.

We lived on the fourth floor for the first year and for the remaining three on the first floor.  It wasn't really our choice, but the landlord situation was, without getting into specifics, a bit nebulous.  When we made our way to the ground apartment I was concerned about its being right next to the drive up/drop off area, but noise was never an issue, other than our one neighbor's yappy little dog.  In fact, we had several dogs in our building, one of which was carted around in a baby carriage by its friendly, silver haired owner.  My first impressions of the new place were not favorable: white tile, vertical blinds.  Old cabinetry in the kitchen that looked '70s or '80s in a not so cool fashion.  But it all grew on me, as most of my previous living quarters had.

As we cleaned out #103 I thought of the laughter and tears my wife and I shared there.  You know me by now, invisible audience.  I'm a reflective sort of guy.  I thought of all our dinner guests and overnighters.  We had two sofas with hide-a-beds in addition to two singles in the guest room so one weekend we hosted a group of several adults and little ones.  Before we moved to this community, none of that would've been possible as I lived in a very small but very cool bachelor type pad, a place I still miss and think about.

Now we're moving again but not too far away.  This time into a house with my mother-in-law, who lost her husband (my wife's stepfather) earlier this year.   He requested this of us very soon after he learned of his diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.  It will be good for all of us, I believe, in a variety of ways.  It's in another well manicured community bordered by a golf course.  The same neighborhood where Harry once lived.  Scroll back to say, May 2012 entries if you're not sure who he is.

Will I miss the condo? Sure.   It was a bright, spacious place to call home.  I'll miss the view.   I'll miss our sweet neighbors.  A young guy upstairs repeatedly called me "Alan" so often I just stopped correcting him. The couple on the right side of us were extremely gracious and hospitable.  I'll miss Embassy Drive, the residential street that cut past our complex and continued southwest for a good stretch.  Beautiful, unique homes.  I often jogged past them at night - these days the daytime heat is too much for this forty something.  That neighborhood has a similar feel to the area on and around Flagler Drive, documented in earlier posts.

So, watch for some (likely very) occasional posts on the new 'hood.  We now return you to your cranky film reviews.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bring on the Night

There's a press conference in Paris. Sting is with his newly assembled group of jazz musicians, about to embark on his first tour without his old Police band mates.  The music recorded for his 1985 debut album Dream of the Blue Turtles sounds nothing like the older stuff.  This makes A & M Records very nervous.  A lot is riding on that opening night.  The front man doesn't seem the least bit concerned, and is as cocky as ever in his retort when a journalist addresses him as "Gordon".

Also at the conference is director Michael Apted, obtaining footage for his 1986 documentary BRING ON THE NIGHT, which is indeed named after a song by the Police.  In a career that includes both independent and big Hollywood films, Apted is as his best when creating cinema verite.  His UP series, which began in the '60s and follows a group of Brits every seven years from age seven on, are some of the most fascinating documents on record.  The genesis of a new musical outfit are what he and Sting are highlighting,  not the peak or end of a career(s) as in earlier concert films/music docs.

They succeed wonderfully. The improvisational feel of the movie allows the viewer (and listener) the pleasures afforded one who may find themselves wandering a huge Paris chateau/rehearsal space, happening upon the musicians as they perfect timekeeping and phrasing.  All under the direction of their fearless leader, of course.  Sting is exacting, but patient with his band and Apted never shows him pitching fits or being too cutting.  There are many fun and silly moments as when everyone breaks out into The Flintstones theme, or playing around with the pronunciation of the word "chasm".  Or belting out a wine fueled rendition of  "New York New York" at lunch.

Each player is interviewed throughout.  Saxophonist Branford Marsalis is amusingly direct, explaining how he is not a celebrity, and does not seek such adulation.  Kenny Kirkland,  a keyboardist who'd worked with Marsalis earlier, is more humble, and excited to be a part of the ensemble.  Drummer Omar Hakim, who'd worked with Weather Report and Dire Straits, ably reinterprets some Police tunes with his own unique stick work and seems cautiously optimistic about opening night.  Daryl Jones had played bass for Miles Davis and perhaps that experience prompted a bit of brio, as Apted captures him wondering aloud if the group will allow equal contributions from all members.   Backup singers Janice Pendarvis and Dolette McDonald are also quite confident, worrying only about how they'll move about in their high heels during the tour.

Sting briefly recalls key (solitary) moments in his days with his old group, but nothing specific as to that experience. You'll have to watch another doc for that.  By the time he'd sat down for BRING ON THE NIGHT, Sting was one of the biggest musical acts in the world, already had a rich career.  Perhaps he knew he would go on to even greater success as he ponders his new gig.  Everyone else wasn't so sure.  Manager Miles Copeland makes his own blunt assessment of the realities of the group's pecking order and how he feels about the selection of their stage apparel.

The later scenes show the Big Night.  The audience at first looks unimpressed, but are soon to their feet, singing along not only to the chestnuts but the newer tunes ("50% hits and 50% unfamiliar").  Intercutting numbers like "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" is footage of the birth of Sting's son Joe, set to the album version of the song "Russians".  This seems to be a questionable accompaniment at first, but it of course includes the line "I hope the Russians love their children too."

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stand By Me

Upon the release of STAND BY ME in 1986, Stephen King declared it the best adaptation of anything he'd written.  The author had been frustrated by lackluster filmizations of Firestarter, Cujo, and was very vocal of his disappointment with Kubrick's take on The Shining.  STAND BY ME, based on the short story "The Body" was the first King non-horror/suspense adaptation, tellingly enough.  It became an immediate favorite of mine. When I revisited it a few months ago the warm feelings remained.

More resonant? But of course; the older one gets the more heart tugging such a story - the recollection of a middle aged writer - becomes.  I've found, much to my surprise, that those youthful, sometimes listless days are often something to be remembered fondly.  Even the bad stuff.  Some say that unpleasant memories fade, but no, they're still vivid, and part of it.  Part of a long ago mosiac that was oh so boring back when but has transformed into some sort of mystical remembrance.  Starring your family, friends, enemies, and those with whom you endlessly lined up for every damn thing you did in elementary school.

STAND BY ME follows four twelve year olds in the 1950s who are about to enter the uncertain world of junior high school.  I remember my own uneasiness, that summer between sixth and seventh grade, wondering how it would be to change classes, meet a whole world of other kids from different neighborhoods, now no longer part of a small group that had more or less become family.  I was also quite worried that I would get my ass kicked on a daily basis.

Gordon (Wil Wheaton) is the gawky, introspective type who enjoys writing stories.  He is haunted by the recent death of his loving older brother.  Chris (River Phoenix) is the tough kid with a less than loving home life.  Teddy (Corey Feldman) yearns to become, like his father, a military man some day.  But dad suffers from mental disorders that led him to injure his son.  Vern (Jerry O'Connell) is the tubby, put upon on brat who always needs rescuing.   Each are close friends and plan a weekend outing - their last before junior high - into the woods to investigate the possibility of finding the corpse of one of their peers. The adult Gordon (Richard Dreyfuss), typing a memoir in the present day, narrates.

Many recognizable preteen behaviors and rites of passage play during the journey: cigarettes, swearing, venturing into murky waters without worrying what might be down there, smarting off to bigger kids without considering the consequences, complaining about your parents, ogling female T.V. stars, etc. The trip is filled with bickering and adventure, as well as a lot of soul baring and crying.   Every moment in director Rob Reiner's drama is letter perfect, sometimes achingly familiar, even if you didn't grow up in the era of Wagon Train and Eisenhower.  To lighten the heaviness, we're treated to a visualization of one of Gordon's stories as he tells it around a campfire to his buds. It's a sequence I doubt anyone will ever forget.

The young cast is excellent.  Knowing that Phoenix, highly effective here, would leave this world prematurely makes his character especially poignant. Wheaton is solid and believable.  Feldman would never have a better part.   O'Connell is hilarious and will be unrecognizable to those who only know him from his adult roles.  Kiefer Sutherland quietly, effectively nails the bully he is given to portray, the kind of jerk who steals your baseball cap and holds it way over your head and laughs, or maybe even threatens your life.

The final moments, as the narrator explains the paths each boy will eventually take, really hit hard.  Realistic. They re-frame the entire movie, casting it in almost an ethereal glow of yearning.  Every seemingly insignificant little thing. Moments to be savored, but not realized as they are happening.  Youth may indeed be wasted on the young.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part VI

It's a sad thing, watching a musical unit trudge on long past their expiration date.  By 1980, 10cc were disorganized and weary.  Former members Godley and Creme had been off making their own records, oddities like L, Freeze Frame, and in 1981, Ismism (retitled Snack Attack for U.S., complete with hilariously silly cover) and soon to embark on a new frontier, music videos.  Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart continued on but their music was increasingly dreary and strangely, paradoxically weighed down by pop sensibilities. The evidence was there on Bloody Tourists. By Look Hear? (Originally Are You Normal) three years later, aside from the not bad "One Two Five", the songbook became marginal, devoid of interest.

There were set-backs. Stewart suffered an accident that damaged his left ear, rendering him unable to record or produce for some time.  10cc decided to go the session musician route (ala Steely Dan) for their early '80s efforts, Ten out of 10 and Windows in the Jungle, the latter featuring "Aja" drummer Steve Gadd.  Among sides of forgettable songs like "L.A. Inflatable" was a late, minor gem from Ten called "Feel the Love", a really catchy number with a video directed by Godley & Creme.  How that occurred must make for interesting reading.

Among G & C's other visual works were Duran Duran's "Girls on Film", quite the controversial clip  with its frolicking fashion models on runways and in kiddie pools. It was banned by MTV for its sexuality and toplessness before a more PG cut was delivered. The duo would go on to demonstrate their prodigious talents for the medium with several videos for, among many others,  The Police, including "Synchronicity II", a MAD MAX like set piece, Herbie Hancock's "Rockit", Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", Yes' "Leave It", and a few for Frankie Goes to Hollywood.  All were innovative and crazily imaginative.  Godley & Creme's own "Englishman in New York" was an early effort, a marionette extravaganza that paved the way for "Rockit".  In 1985, their "Cry" utilized analog cross-fading, a morphing-like technique blending actors' faces into each other.  Quite revolutionary for the time.  The duo picked up an MTV video award for their work.

Meanwhile, Gouldman and Stewart began to grow apart, producing others'  projects and collaborating less on 10cc. A final tour (for awhile) proceeded in 1983.  American artist Andrew Gold was recruited in efforts to freshen the sound.  But 10cc's time had long passed.  Each new album sounded more tired than the previous.  They are worth a listen for curiosity's sake, but not worth the $$ it would require for vinyl or a disc.  Search YouTube instead.

For the next, and final entry for 10cc's series, we'll cover the band's reunions, switched allegiances, resignations, and desperate attempts to soldier on.