Saturday, December 16, 2017

REVISITING A LETTER TO RIAN JOHNSON



It feels a little bit like Christmas morning around the house this a.m., even though we’ve still got a week and change to go before the actual day, and that’s undoubtedly because all the women here are rousing themselves a bit early to get ready for what amounts to Christmas 2017, Hollywood style. (The cats have been up for some time already, and they too are very excited, but you know, that’s just their way.) You see, in a couple hours we’re all piling into the car and making the pilgrimage up the hill to Universal City to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When it comes to buying advance tickets for a big movie for the whole family to see together my dear wife knows no restraints, and if the movie is prefixed with the words “Star Wars,” then all bets are most assuredly off. So, today’s show will come enhanced with the very best in IMAX and 3D, just so we won’t feel gypped in any way. Merry Christmas, kids!

The Cozzalio women would see Star Wars: The Last Jedi no matter what, of course, regardless of whether Alec Guinness himself reappeared as a hologram next to their morning bacon, eggs and cinnamon rolls (now warming in the oven!) and warned them that the Force was definitely not with this one and that this was not the movie we were looking for. But this Force agnostic has been very encouraged by enthusiastic advance word pretty much across the board, especially from the likes of the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang and New York magazine’s David Edelstein.


What’s more, the new movie has been directed not by talented serial copycat JJ Abrams, but instead one Rian Johnson, who has been, with his three previous features, nothing if not all about tracing his own path. His first movie was the bizarrely captivating Brick, in which he imagines a world where echoes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler infuse not only the atmosphere but also the attitudes and even the style of everyday speech as a disaffected high school student attempts to piece together the circumstances surrounding a murder among the student body.  Johnson followed Brick with The Brothers Bloom, a quirky comedy of deception and romance starring Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. And most recently, Johnson offered up Looper, a mind-bending science fiction thriller in which a time-traveling assassin (Brick’s Joseph Gordon Levitt) finds out his latest target is the aged version of himself (Bruce Willis). Surely the dexterous and dynamic Looper played a big role in convincing the powers that be at Disney of Johnson’s ability to successful take the conn of their biggest interstellar cash machine. The combination of all the good notices, plus the involvement of a good, strong-willed director in the Star Wars franchise, for the first time since Irvin Kershner made magic with The Empire Strikes Back, has indeed made me feel a little like it’s Christmas morning too. 

And if the movie is as good as advertised, it won’t be the first time Rian Johnson has delighted my family on a very personal level. You see, way back in 2009, just before her ninth birthday, I took my oldest daughter Emma to see a double feature of The Lady Eve and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a strange double bill you might think, as I did at first. But there was an overriding intelligence behind the pairing. The program was curated by Rian Johnson as part of a brief series he hosted at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles called "Rian Johnson's Festival of Fakery," and I’m sure you can now see the connection Johnson drew between the two ostensibly mismatched films by placing them together in this context. Johnson not only introduced the films, he did magic tricks, enthused about Los Angeles' Museum of Jurassic Technology, and even showed some mind-boggling George Méliès shorts. It was a superb night out for us, and it really helped to seal Emma's fate as a true appreciator of the fantastic and the classic elements of movie history. I was so happy about being able to attend, and about what the evening meant both for her and for me, that I wrote Johnson a letter thanking him for the experience. He sent me a personal response (very nice!) which I’ve kept for myself and Emma.and it really helped to seal Emma's fate as a appreciator of the fantastic and the classic elements of movie history. I was so happy about being able to attend that I wrote Johnson a letter about it, which I turned into an SLIFR post. He sent me a personal response (very nice!), which I kept for myself and Emma. But if you want to read the letter I sent, an account of our evening with Rian Johnson's Festival of Fakery, it's available right here. But in anticipation of seeing his new movie, I’d like to share with you the letter I wrote to Johnson.

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Mr. Johnson,

There are many occasions we have as moviegoers to experience regret, about as many as there are opportunities to opt for special, even once-in-a-lifetime screenings over the average multiplex fare, because we most certainly can never see all there is to see on any given night, especially in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle or anywhere else a moviegoer might be tempted. I can say with certainty that I regret having had to miss the recent “Festival of Fakery” you programmed at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles, a series of films all thematically linked by the notion of cons and fraud and the familiar idea of things not being what they seem. The festival was a clever way to prepare your audience for your upcoming movie The Brothers Bloom, but more importantly within this theme you were able to introduce other films and continue what has fast become a bit of a tradition at the New Beverly-- turning over the calendar to a filmmaker who can now share a love of films not only through the ones he or she makes, but also by programming and talking about the ones that formed his or her sensibility as a creative artist.


The movies in your “Festival of Fakery” series that I regret having missed included Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Spanish Prisoner, The Sting, The Man Who Would Be King, 8½ and F for Fake, all of which were undoubtedly made even more vivid and rich on the big screen through your introductions. But I cannot fully mourn missing the festival, because I did indeed make it out for the first night of the closing program, a delightful double feature of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a pairing I can’t imagine would have been likely to have come up in any other context. It was the pairing, however, and not the festival that brought me and my oldest daughter to the New Beverly last Friday. I wanted her to experience the giddy joy of Preston Sturges’ very best movie at my side and open up to her a new element of classic Hollywood—the screwball comedy—to ride shotgun with her burgeoning appreciation of westerns like Bend of the River and Buchanan Rides Alone. And I knew she would dig the demented dioramas and perverse gigantism of Gilliam’s movie—I’d shown her the first 20 minutes on DVD and so when we saw it would be playing at the New Beverly it instantly became a must-see event. I expected that she would find two new films to love that night.


What I didn’t expect was that you would treat my daughter to not only these great movies, but also to what was surely the most elaborate and well-thought-out presentation in the short history of these New Bev filmmaker series. The essential ambience of the evening’s musical accompaniment was performed on pedal steel guitar instead of house organ, and it was a real treat. My daughter and I were sitting four rows from the front and had a great view of the card trick you performed (with the help of New Bev institution Clu Gulager) to warm up the crowd before the first film, and the look of amazement on her face, even so early on in the evening’s entertainment, was alone worth the price of admission. Nor did I expect that, perfectly in tune with another shot at exposing my daughter to classic cinema, you would essentially be putting on for the lucky audience a brief film school lecture, complete with projected slide show, anecdotes and directorial history, to lay the groundwork for seeing The Lady Eve. My daughter listened with great interest as you explained a little background on Preston Sturges and his position in the food chain of the studio system of 1940s Hollywood. She was even more fascinated when talk turned to Gilliam’s movie, its history, and even your experience viewing it for the first time. (I added my own little dimension of fascination when I revealed to her that Munchausen was, in fact, the very first movie her mother and I saw together, on the night we first met back in 1988, at the old Century Plaza Cinemas on the night the movie opened.) Again, the slide presentation really opened up what could have been a dry little talk and helped make it sing with your own enthusiasm.


And in between films I was caught up with a bit of emotion when you unexpectedly screened the two George Méliès shorts, which so clearly demonstrated Méliès’ fascination with motion picture photography and the endless possibilities for cinema trickery. Some of the tricks he employed in the first short, The Wizard, were precisely the same stunts my friends and I concocted on Super 8 back in the ‘70s, with minimal awareness of Méliès or his significance. (The visual magic on display in MélièsFour Heads, which you also screened, was and ever remained far more sophisticated, with its hilarious self-decapitations, than anything we could have ever come up with.) I was struck by that connection between Méliès and young filmmakers feeling their way through this new (to them) medium, how we movie-geek kids were funneling creativity in our own way, virtually unaware that the same tricks had been discovered nearly a century earlier by a pioneer of film who was in his way as seduced by the movies as we were. I thrilled to the opportunity to explain why these old films were so important, and she laughed her head off at the crude, eye-popping slapstick, a fresh audience for hundred-year-old tricks who looked at them as if they’d never been seen before.

Finally, I couldn’t have appreciated more your sidebar discussion of those Renaissance cabinets of curiosity whose tradition is carried on by The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a funky collective of oddities and wonders that my daughter found very mysterious and fascinating from your description. We are planning our first excursion there very soon, and we will be thinking of you during our tour, to be sure.

All this for the very reasonable price of a New Beverly ticket and no expectation other than the enjoyment of the two grand movies we initially came to see. We both are very thankful that we were treated to so much more, courtesy of your genial and informative presentation, which made a simple night out at the movies for dad and daughter into what will certainly be one of the most memorable and enjoyable outings for us to the movies this year. I look forward to attending The Brothers Bloom during its theatrical run at the Arclight Cinemas here in Los Angeles beginning May 15.

And right now, after I post this, I’m going to return to Brick. I tried seeing it last night, on about two and a half hours sleep, and I became mystified by the dialogue after about an hour—I literally couldn’t keep up with what the characters were saying in this strange but rewarding mystery where everyone in high school speaks Dashiell Hammett instead of John Hughes. I look forward to rejoining the movie tonight with a fresh set of ears and eyeballs. And I look forward to anything else you might have up your sleeve in the future as well. But most of all, I will always hold dear the memory of being in your New Beverly Cinema film class last Friday night with my daughter. If she develops a serious interest in the movies you will surely have played an important part in that, and even if she doesn’t she still laughed at your tricks, and at Henry Fonda’s elegant pratfalls, and Barbara Stanwyck’s supernatural turns of phrase, and the King of the Moon (head only) chasing Baron Munchausen around the Sea of Tranquility. For that you have my utmost appreciation and my best wishes for all the stories you choose to tell.

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Back to the future, in 2017, I hope Rian Johnson has more stories to tell than just those of a galaxy far, far away. It would be a shame to see him absorbed by the star(wars)-making machinery. But in the meantime, a tip of the cap to this gifted and enthusiastic young director who might just be the guy to expand the many worlds of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Rey, Poe, Finn and the grandiose and galactic emo-osity of Kylo Ren into genuine fun and surprise once again. And now, it’s show time!

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

NOTES ON THE LANDLORD AND LEE GRANT



Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, made in 1970, is probably the best movie of the 1970s not to be widely known by younger audiences, and even by some older audiences whose appreciation of the last great era of American moviemaking needs to be expanded beyond go-to classics like The Godfather and Chinatown and Taxi Driver.

It’s Ashby’s first directorial effort, after work as assistant editor and chief film editor on The Diary of Anne Frank, The Cincinnati Kid and In the Heat of the Night, and it finds Ashby delighting in the freedom of fashioning experimental rules of editorial and visual expression in the process of translating a script from Bill Gunn (Ganja and Hess), based on Kristin Hunter’s novel, into what stands today as one of the funniest, most honest, cogent and probing explorations of race and American race relations in movie history. We had it on during dinner at my house last week when it aired on Turner Classic Movies, and several times my daughters sat up, listened, and even expressed shock at some of the things the movie was talking about, and especially the way it was talking about them. As kids in 2017 they’re not used to seeing movies with a true measure of frankness about any subject that’s not meant primarily as simple shock value, but then I’d wager most adults, conditioned to respond to a constant barrage of multiplex stimuli over the course of 30 or more years, might find The Landlord sort of shocking too. Which is one vital reason why it should be more well-known.

The Landlord is also notable for its cast, with great turns from undervalued character actors like Walter Brooke, Mel Stewart, Will MacKenzie, Susan Anspach, Marki Bey, and Beau Bridges in the titular role as Elgar, a clueless rich kid who, at 29 years old, rejects the influence of his moneyed parents and decides to turn a Harlem tenement into his personal reclamation project. But as good as Bridges is—and he’s terrific-- three women in particular form the beating heart of The Landlord’s satiric and socially conscious heart. 


The pain and longing at the foundation of Diana Sands’s performance as Fanny, the young and very married mother whose prickly attraction to Bridges forms the nexus of the movie’s push-pull commentary on social and cultural reality. Sands is achingly good here, not only for the dimension she brings to her role and the movie at large, but also because of the knowledge that her own life and the potential within it for more great work on this level would be cut short by cancer three years after The Landlord was released. 


Then there’s Pearl Bailey as Marge, the tenement’s central matriarchal figure who, after a significant measure of resistance, helps Elgar establish his presence among the naturally suspicious tenants and who treats him with unexpected respect, like the mother he wishes he had. Bailey was at the time, and today remains more well-known for her talents as a singer, but The Landlord underlines her great comedic timing and force. She was a master of the raised eyebrow, a talent which really gets a workout in a scene with Elgar’s actual mother, Mrs. Enders, played with customary insouciance and comic flair by Lee Grant, in which the two of them trade decorating ideas while getting sloshed on Marge’s pot liquor, that is a genuine comedy classic. 



Grant enjoyed a wonderful period here as a near-peerless American character actress, which would peak with an Oscar for her work in Ashby’s Shampoo. In The Landlord she’s screamingly funny as well as entirely likable and empathetic in her desire to understand her son’s wayward impulses, which makes the gradual takeover of her prejudicial anger and wounded pride all the more powerful.


Lee Grant is one of those actresses who has always made me sit up and take notice. She could be relied on to send a signal that her arrival in a scene meant that the fun was about to start, that something, anything, could happen, and whatever it ended up being was probably going to be well worth watching. Consequently, I’ve always been a little bit in love with her unique mix of sweetness, brashness and potential fury, and when I was lucky enough to meet her at a screening of The Landlord and Shampoo a couple of years ago it was something of a nerve-wracking occasion for me, at least at first. As I nervously approached her bearing a copy of her autobiography, I Said Yes to Everything, I fumbled slightly and told her, "I have to confess something to you."

She put down the pen with which she was getting ready to autograph my book, looked at me and with a good-natured smile and said, "Uh-oh." Strangely, that made me feel slightly more comfortable, and I proceeded to tell her, "As much as I love you in these two movies, and so many others, I have to admit I have a real soft spot for you in Airport 1977." And I do, even though she is super-mean to Christopher Lee, who, in a rare good-guy turn, plays the husband whose spine she has softened over years of besotted sarcasm and betrayal. It’s a terrific, bitchy performance and she, along with Jack Lemmon and a couple of others, really work to elevate this third Airport disaster into the realm of a genuine good show. I finished my gushing, and without breaking my gaze she grabbed my shoulder and laughed. "Oh, that piece of shit!" she said. "It's so tacky! But fun!" We both laughed, and I got a little giddy at how open she was—some celebrities can embrace a book-signing as the potentially desultory and deadening experience it can be and consequently make their boredom all too clear—and headed to my seat. When I got there, I opened up the cover to peek at what she'd written in my book. This is what it said: "To Dennis. We'll always have Airport 1977! Love, Lee."

Have I mentioned that Lee Grant is the greatest actress of all time?!

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Friday, November 24, 2017

PROFESSOR BIRDMAN'S WING-FLAPPING, PLUMAGE-FLAUNTING, BEAK-BUSTING THANKSGIVING WEEKEND MOVIE QUIZ



SQUAAAAAAAWK!!! 

In honor, I suppose, of all those odd-looking indigenous birds who yesterday ended up on so many millions of American dinner tables, all in the name of gratitude, tribute and gratuitous belt-loosening, SLIFR University, after a long hiatus, is proud to present our latest quiz. This one will be presented by one of our most unstable and, if provoked, potentially aggressive faculty members and Dean of the SLIFR U College of Ornithology, Professor Francis X. Birdman.

Known for his elaborate, rambling lectures about ornithological behavior patterns, taxonomy and population ecology, during which he often displays the ability to take on the form and function of the particular species being studied, Professor Birdman is one of the most popular teachers on campus-- this despite his occasionally hostile behavior toward students (many have reported being randomly pecked during office visits) and insistence on being fed bread crumbs during lectures. However, he promises to behave and, in acknowledgment of the unfortunate circumstances that transpired during his final exams last semester, to not slash at or otherwise tangle his talons in the hair of those students whose scores he deems demonstrative of a certain lackadaisical attitude toward the obtainment of knowledge about his most precious ancestral line—er, subject of academic inquiry.

A few words on procedure, as usual. When leaving your answers in the comments section below, please remember to cut and paste the questions and include them as part of your response. That way, those who will be examining your paper won’t have to constantly refer to this post to ground themselves in the context of your answers. (Of course, if you have a blog of your own and would like to answer your questions there, please post a link in the comments so we can see what you’ve come up with.)

So, without any further hesitation, it’s time to dust off your wings, pick up your sharpened number 2 and get flappin’. Professor Birdman, the podium is yours.

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1) Most obnoxious movie you’ve ever seen

2) Favorite oddball pairing of actors

3) Which movie would you have paid to see remade
     by Ken Russell?

4) Emma Stone or Margot Robbie?

5) Which member of Monty Python are you?

6) Which movie would you have paid to see remade
     by Vincent Minnelli?

7) Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte?

8) Your favorite Japanese monster movie

9) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
     by Stanley Kubrick?

10) Hanna Schygulla or Barbara Sukowa?

11) Name a critically admired movie that you hate

12) Which movie would you have paid to see remade
       by Elia Kazan?

13) Better or worse: Disney comedies (1955-1975) 
       or Elvis musicals?

14) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
       by Alfred Hitchcock?

15) Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum?

16) Bad performance in a movie you otherwise like/love

17) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
       by Howard Hawks?

18) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?

19) Best crime movie remake

20) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
        by Preston Sturges?

21) West Side Story (the movie), yes or no?

22) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
        by Luchino Visconti?

23) What was the last movie you saw, theatrically
       and/or on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming?

24) Brewster McCloud  or O.C. and Stiggs?

25) Which movie would you have paid to see remade
        by Luis Bunuel?

26) Best nature-in-revolt movie

27) Best Rene Auberjoinois performance (film or TV)

28) Which movie would you have paid to see remade 
        by Ingmar Bergman?

29) Best movie with a bird or referencing a bird in its title?

30) Burt Lancaster or Michael Keaton?

31) In what way have the recent avalanche of allegations unearthed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal changed the way you look at movies and the artists who make them?

32) In 2017 which is “better,” TV or the movies?

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

GIVING MOVIE THANKS (2017 EDITION)



I’d imagine every one of us, despite our individual life situations, however privileged or difficult they may be, wouldn’t have too much trouble coming up with a pretty long list of people and circumstances for which to be grateful, during the upcoming week traditionally reserved for the expression of thanks as well as throughout the entirety of the year.

Even in our brave new world, where gratitude and humility and generosity of spirit often seem to be in short supply, at the mercy of greed, abuse of power, disregard for the rule of law, and megalomaniac self-interest cynically masquerading as an aggressive strain of nationalist, populist passion, there are good, everyday reasons to look around and take stock of blessings in one’s immediate surroundings.

And speaking specifically as one who has the privilege and opportunity to occasionally write about matters concerning the movies, and even a (very) modest readership cultivated over the course of 14 years of noodling away at it, it’s hard to be entirely defeatist about the prospect, even if moment by moment the movies themselves can sometimes cause a chin to get heavy and droop. For those who love the art form of the movies (and by extension, all the art forms that feed into and make the movies uniquely pleasurable), it seems there will always be a reason to take heart, if not always from the current state of the art, then perhaps from the richness of our shared movie past.


For instance, just this past week I was fortunate enough to see two great films by Robert Altman. If there is any lingering doubt as to whether or not McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is one of the great American movies of any age, then one need only see it as I did last week at AFI Fest 2017, projected in a spectacular 35mm print, to dispel those silly misgivings. Unfortunately, that kind of opportunity for confirmation is very rare indeed, even in cities like Los Angeles or New York, so don’t be discouraged that your best alternative is Criterion’s smashing digital Blu-ray upgrade. In addition to the highest quality digital transfer of Vilmos Zsigmond’s revolutionary cinematography now available, McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s celebrated, and excoriated, soundtrack, layered with overlapping dialogue which enrichens the movie’s bustling, claustrophobic daguerreotype-in-motion style, gets spiffed up too, with optional English subtitles (created by myself and my wife—check the liner notes) which weave an illuminating line through the creative cacophony of the town of Presbyterian Church.


Better still, I saw Nashville, far and away my favorite movie over the past 40 years, projected (digitally), this past week too. Nashville is a movie I initially resisted, when I first saw it at age 15, one which came to overwhelm my sense of what movies were and what movies could be as I gave it some repeated viewings along my journey toward adulthood. Nashville has always had the ability to speak to me about our country and its citizenry in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate time for which it was originally made. But seeing it and thinking about it now has proved to be artistically valuable and important, for me at least, in processing the violation of American tradition, manner and protocol that has proved to be the primary currency in the age of Trump. (I wrote a piece on about the movie on the eve of last year’s election that was certainly one of the ways I attempted to deal with the imminent bad moon rising: here's the link.)

I took my own politically engaged 15-year-old along with me to last week’s screening, fully aware that she is the same age now that I was when I first saw and rejected Nashville. I wasn’t really hanging my hopes on her recognizing it as the profoundly funny masterpiece I happen to believe it is. But as someone who is learning to face up, with anger and passion, to gender inequality and other forms of social injustice, I thought she might possibly connect with Nashville on some level which might translate to her Trump-resistant daily life. She did not, unfortunately, and that’s okay. My real regret, when comparing her negative response to the experience of the film to my own back in 1975, is that she’s not growing up in a culture which encourages re-experiencing movies like Nashville, if there can be said to even be a film culture in America in 2017 that is remotely like the one which existed in cities and on college campuses in 1975. (Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Altman made movies from MASH and The Long Goodbye to Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women and even Popeye under the aegis of big American studios.) So, it’s unlikely that my daughter is ever going to stumble upon a screening of Nashville in her young adulthood and say to herself, “Hey, maybe I oughta give that movie another chance,” the way her dad once did.


But seeing the movie together did give me a moment with my daughter to remember. As a way of preparing her for the film, I was giving her some idea of the sociopolitical context—Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate and the erosion of faith in the American politics, and the American class system as reflected in the microcosm of the Music City society of celebrities, up-and-comers, has-beens and never-will-bes, all mixing it up with a rainbow coalition of regular citizenry that make up the movie’s teeming cast of characters.  As we got ready to leave the car, I finished up my little lecture and I noticed that she had a big grin on her face. I asked her why, and she told me, “I just like listening to you talk about something you have so much passion for. It makes me happy.” Well, after that she could have unfavorably compared Nashville to Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy for all I cared. It was one of the nicest things anybody had said to me in weeks, courtesy of my daughter and, by extension, my favorite movie. What’s not to be thankful for?

That’s not the only thing deserving of my gratitude this year, of course, and most of those things that rate appreciation in my life have precious little to do with the movies. But of the other things that do, maybe I’m most grateful for the sea change that seems to be taking place in Hollywood, and in America at large, regarding sexual harassment and abuse of power in the working world. I remain hopeful that a backlash is not inevitable, that the more women who step out and stand up to the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of their male colleagues, the ones in power and the ones in the trenches right alongside them, will strengthen the resolve to face the problem head on, and not encourage those so inclined to blow it all off as a tide of opportunism risen by women with shallow careerism or simple revenge as motivation. But I’m also grateful for the wave of insistent shame I feel personally for having cruised along on a certain measure of male privilege all my life, never having tumbled as to just how pervasive a problem this has been not only for the high-profile women speaking up against the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Roy Moore and (sigh) Al Franken, but for women I have personally worked with and respected ever since taking my very first job. I should feel ashamed. And may I never again be so casually comfortable about knowing that my female friends and colleagues must put up with shit I will probably never have to endure. Yes, Harvey, it was a different world then, but we have a chance to make it an even more different, measurably better world now, and for that I am also very thankful.

I’ve been writing about movies in a public forum for over 14 years now, and that endeavor has brought me in touch with a lot of people whose talent and perspective are infinitely valuable to me. Without presuming to put myself on their level, I am and always have been grateful to call these people my peers and my friends: Simon Abrams, Jeff Allard, Peg Aloi, Christopher Atwell, Steven Awalt, Sean Axmaker, Larry Aydlette, Christianne Benedict, Howard S. Berger, Tom Block, Chuck Bowen, Tom Carson, Justin Chang, David Chute, Paul Clark, Michael Colleary, Joe Dante, Brian Doan, Phillip Dyess-Nugent, David Edelstein, Jim Emerson, Paul Gaita, Peet Gelderblom, Michael Giammarino, Odie Henderson, Robert Hubbard, Dan Jardine, Larry Karaszewski, Craig Kennedy, Sharon Knolle, Charlie Largent, Tim Lucas, Kevin Maher, Don Mancini, Nicholas McCarthy, Roger McDorman, Marty McKee,  Marya Murphy, Farran Smith Nehme, Peter Nellhaus, Sheila O’Malley, Angelina Orduno, Craig Phillips, Terrence Rafferty, Carrie Rickey, Patrick Robbins, Shade Rupe, Steven Santos, Michael Schlesinger, Matt Zoller Seitz, Gene Seymour Richard Harland Smith, Peter Sobcynski, William Speruzzi, Michael Sragow, Charles Taylor, Ella Taylor, Michael Torgan, Lee Tsiantis, Noel Vera, Richard Von Busack, Bob Westal, Matthew David Wilder, Mike Werb, Chris Willman and Stephanie Zacharek. Many of you are fellow writers, but regardless of what your talent may be, all of you made my life richer and more interesting because of your intellects and your good humor during the past year, and I am beyond appreciative for your presence in it.


I am also grateful for any movie year in which I was able to see films like Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, James Mangold’s Logan, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Joon-ho Bong’s Okja, Don Mancini’s Cult of Chucky, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Ceyda Torun’s Kedi and Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game.

Then add to the mix David Lynch’s monumental 18 hours of Twin Peaks: The Return and the Netflix series Mindhunter, shepherded by creator Joe Penhall and director David Fincher, and homing in on what might be the best picture of 2017 becomes an even greater challenge.

All that, and I’ve still to see Mudbound, The Meyerowitz Stories, One of Us, First They Killed My Father, Battle of the Sexes, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, Lucky, Our Souls at Night, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Faces Places, The Florida Project, Take My Nose… Please!, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, Happy Death Day, Human Flow, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, BPM, Wonderstruck, Bill Nye: Science Guy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Novitiate, The Square, 11/8/16, Last Flag Flying, LBJ, My Friend Dahmer, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Lady Bird, Murder on the Orient Express, Justice League, Wonder, Coco, Darkest Hour, Molly’s Game, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, The Disaster Artist, Wonder Wheel, The Shape of Water, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Downsizing, Happy End, The Post, Phantom Thread and, perhaps of even more interest now, the post-Spacey All the Money in the World.

I am grateful for the cats in my house, Poyo, Toast and Juju, who will always sit down and watch TV with me, as long as there's a blanket on my lap, and sometimes even when there isn't.

And most of all, I am very thankful for the family and friends with whom I get to experience all this joy and frustration and madness every day. My sanity, and perhaps yours, hangs in the balance. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 06, 2017

THOR RAGNAROKKIN'


Well, yes, Thor: Ragnarok  roks. It is as funny as advertised, and the movie really benefits from the sensibility of its director, Takia Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) and his offhanded way with a joke, as well as the setup to that joke, as a means of defusing the standard-issue grandiosity to which these pictures usually default. Watiti's touch is unusual among Marvel directors, and he ends up lightening (but not watering down) the feel of the entire movie, even the more de rigueur CGI battles toward which the movie eventually moves. And it made me realize that over the past couple of years my favorite Marvel pictures are either the more-or-less self-contained origin stories (Captain America: The First Avenger) or, more often, the ones which don’t take themselves too seriously—Ant-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Iron Man 3 and now this one—as opposed to the ones which make too much of a show of not taking themselves too seriously, like the Guardians of the Galaxy pictures. (The answer to how my admiration for the stand-alone thrillers Logan and, from a few years back, Wolverine, fit into this neat little observation is that they don’t.)
As for the cast, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo work a comedy-team sort of magic (even when Ruffalo is in Big Green mode) that is, forgive me, a particular marvel, and I was continually grateful for the patented elliptical smarm of Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, overseer of the super-sized gladiator spectacle which ends up pitting Thor against his old pal The Incredible Hulk. Cate Blanchett wears her antlers well—her entire Emma-Peel-as-the-Goddess-of-Death-look, actually—as Hela, who unfortunately presides, however grandly, over the movie’s most conventional aspect, the Marvel villain bent on destroying Asgard and ruling the universe. But the biggest surprise is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a hard-drinking, ass-kicking bounty hunter who is stranded on the garbage planet which the Grandmaster calls his kingdom. She has enough attitude for two movies and the sexy style to back it up, which she wears even during her big entrance, a (big) misstep which immediately seals her status as the most welcome, no-nonsense (yet good-humored) female addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. In the words of a friend who saw Thor: Ragnarok the same day I did and was equally impressed by Thompson, more, please!
 
 
But it’s the movie’s day-glo-disco sheen that most seduced my eye. That sheen is most apparent on Goldblum’s garbage planet, but the pretense-deflating shimmer even finds its way to Asgard as well, where some of the more typically overwrought iconography is leavened by the visual attitude of the production design. Thor: Ragnarok  is also resplendent with reminders of the epic, dynamically detailed panels of Jack Kirby, the artist who was originally responsible for the memorable energy, visual weight and occasionally hallucinatory fever of the early Mighty Thor comics. (If you've seen the movie, imagine Thor's confrontation with the demon near the beginning of the film done up in frames that stretch over two full comic-book pages, with Kirby's customary sense of scale, clarity and striking lines.)
The picture that Thor: Ragnarok most happily reminded me of, however, was not (thankfully) either of the previous two Thor pictures, or any other Marvel picture really, but instead Mike Hodges’ simultaneously reverent and revisionist Flash Gordon (1980), which was positively awash in opulent, sublimely tacky production design and correspondingly outrageous costumes courtesy of Danilo Donati. That Thor: Ragnarok could be said to be circling in anywhere close to the orbit of that movie’s magnificent Mongo is perhaps the highest compliment I could give it. Mark Mothersbaugh, who supplies the score, doesn’t come close to the exuberant operatic explosions which Queen provided for the 1980 movie, but he hits his own bouncy balance between Euro-disco bliss and a more standard-issue symphonic sonic landscape which, more often than not, brings a touch of Flash (“Aaaaah-ahh!”) to the ears and contributes to the contact high the movie offers with seductive and disarming ease. As it happens, we are treated to not one, but two action sequences choreographed and edited to the sonic thunder of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” which serves the same function, and that gets Thor: Ragnarok an “Aaah-aaah-aah Aah!” of its own, more or less, with which to link back to Queen’s kitschy Flash Gordon theme. 
I’m sure we’re due for a lecture or two from the sect of Those Who Know More Than We Do About Such Things, much like we got this past summer when Spider-Man: Homecoming managed to curry too much favor from critics and audiences, about how Thor: Ragnarok dishonors the spirit of the original Marvel Comics source material or somehow or another provides cause for offense among hard-core genre wags. But I don’t much care how engaged it is with the MCU or whether or not it stays true to the way things panned out in the canonical texts (Jesus Christ…). The fact is, the movie may simply be too much fun for sourpusses seriously worried about whether or not this is the Thor they grew up with. I don’t think it’s necessarily misguided for some of the more poker-faced among us to express displeasure at the way the whole Marvel/DC blockbuster aesthetic has swamped American movies. But if even half of the superhero stuff that has come before were anywhere near as entertaining as Thor: Ragnarok is, I suspect there’d be a whole lot less complaining.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

FOR HALLOWEEN: MEMORIES OF MOVIE FEAR



Last night, at the tail end of a long and weird day, after all the rest of the folks who live with me were snug in bed, I shut off all the lights in the house, settled into my living room movie-watching chair and fired up a vintage Hammer classic I’d never seen before, The Reptile (1966). Even though it was directed by John Gilling, who helmed one of my favorite Hammer pictures, The Plague of the Zombies (from the same year), my expectations were low—I’d heard from trustworthy sources that it wasn’t a top-drawer offering from my favorite genre-oriented studio. But The Reptile, despite being a bit of a slow burn (as, admittedly, many Hammer pictures are, especially to a generation weaned on visually hyperactive remakes and reboots of established classics), turned out to be a creepy, well-earned scare, and the lead-up to the reveal of the titular creature pays off with a much more frightening and convincing makeup design than the one we got at the end of The Gorgon, which is probably a better picture overall. Beyond the reveal, The Reptile doesn’t really have much of a finish, but watching it in as much darkness as my little house in Glendale could muster reminded me of the mortified delight I used to take in staying up late on Friday night to watch the CBS Late Movie, which is where I caught several of the Hammer movies I would grow to love, even ones like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed which I had already been lucky enough to see theatrically.

On those nights, I would glue myself to the chair in my parents’ living room, fully aware that I couldn’t make too much noise—the TV couldn’t be too loud or my dad would come storming out of his bedroom, demanding to know what the hell all the noise was and, worst of all, insisting that I shut the TV off and go to bed. So there was a certain amount of tension in the situation for me even before the late night movie theme song came on, which of course heralded the official start of the real scares.

During the movie itself, I would sit rigid in the chair, my full attention riveted to the screen. There was a twofold reason for this. 1) Because I was completely consumed by the nightmarish stories that were unfolding before me. But also 2), because I was convinced that lurking just outside my peripheral vision, hidden somewhere in the shadowy corner of the room, perhaps near the front door, was a monster the equal of anything in the movie, poised to lunge out from said shadows at precisely the moment of my discovery of it. And God help me (He never did) if I had to get up and go to the bathroom during a commercial, because who knew what lay in wait for me on the long walk from my chair to the toilet.

I flashed on all of this while I was watching the movie last night, the memory of how much fun it was as a kid to be totally taken to the cleaners by a movie like The Reptile. It was dark enough in my house last night that when the male lead went creeping through the old dark house and came face to face with the reptile itself, the frightening visage concocted by Hammer’s makeup team seemed to lunge out of the shadows of my own house, and it honestly scared the shit out of me. I was a 57-year-old adult who felt reduced to the emotional responses of his 13-year-old self, and very pleasurably so.

In thinking about it in the light of the morning after, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for my daughters’ generation, kids who are surrounded by every iteration and manifestation of technology; who never have to wait until 11:30 on a weekend night to get their horror movie dosage, who approach the vintage classics of the genre with suspicion or having already been exposed to their various gruesome highlights and surprises via memes and GIFs and other strands of Internet magic; and whose exposure to horror movies almost always come in group settings where the default response is usually set to ironic deflation or laughter, settings in which the movies have virtually no chance to be effective in the way they were intended.


This sort of superiority to the experience of watching a vintage horror movie with an audience is certainly not restricted to young people. This past Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a Halloween-themed screening of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), which I’d never seen projected, at the beautiful Alex Theater in downtown Glendale, and the audience was primarily comprised of folks 10 years either side of my age. These people were only too happy to giggle at anything, especially any acting, that seemed even slightly over-florid. And just in case anyone should think they were taking things too seriously, at each and every appearance of an obviously phony vampire bat, rather than just settle into the movie and accept the convention of the effects of the day, there was a ripple of laughter as if to say, “I must let everyone around me know that I know how funny those fake bats are!” Thanks for the information, Gladys and Herb. Now pipe down! Fortunately, the movie was as good as it always has been, certainly engrossing enough to offset the offenses of a bunch of bat gigglers.

I still love horror movies, the old ones especially, but new ones too, when they live up to the potential of the genre and honor it instead of simply splattering it all over the walls. But I so miss that feeling of being a child totally at the mercy of a movie which orchestrates, by design or by accident, an audience’s fear so completely. I remember being a bit older (around 15) and coming across Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the second feature (airing around 2:00 a.m.) of Sinister Cinema, the weekend horror movie program which originated out of Portland, Oregon in the 1970s. The movie had already been anointed (and excoriated) as a midnight cult hit, but as far as I knew this was the first time anyone had shown it on any TV program that I could see. And much like those CBS Late Movie showings from just a few years earlier, I was mortified as I watched from my bedroom (a little less likely to get yelled at by Dad from there), and just as paranoid to scan the room for possible monsters as I ever was.

A couple years later, in college, I saw the movie projected for the first time, a midnight show at a local Eugene, Oregon mutliplex, and I was filled with nervous dread and anticipation almost as if I’d never seen the movie before. The movie started, and as the fear began to ratchet up, somebody outside, a drunk or a prankster, began banging on the exit door to the parking lot. It went on for a couple minutes, before the door-banger could be dissuaded by a theater employee or a security guard. But by then it was too late—the thought that, hey, what if that banging was a ghoul outside trying to get into the theater, just like what was happening in the movie?! What then???!!!! I left the screening genuinely worried, if only for a minute or so, that we might all emerge from the darkened auditorium into the darkened parking lot to a world already at the mercy of the intestine-gobbling, all-too-living dead. And that fear made the movie even better, more fun. I haven’t experienced anything as simultaneously exhilarating and genuinely horrifying at a movie since that night.

How old were you when you first saw Night of the Living Dead? You can answer in the comments column below, of course. But this was a question I originally posed to friends on my Facebook page last week, and most who answered confessed to a range of ages that would probably, on some objective scale, be determined to be too young for such an experience. But from such scars comes a unique appreciation of the genuine horror movie experience, and none of them expressed any regret at having endured the movie for the first time at such tender ages. Horror scholar and historian Richard Harland Smith relayed a story very similar to mine, recalling an ideal viewing of NOTLD on late-night television as a youngster, alone in his parents’ country house, unnerved and compulsively checking the backyard during commercial breaks “and behind the shower curtain in the bathroom when I ran in to take a leak.” Another Facebook friend described seeing it theatrically in high school in 1970, at around age 15, having to convince the two friends he attended with, who fled to the lobby at various points during the film, to stay there so he could go back in and watch the rest of the movie. The dead silence of the audience as the lights came up matched that in the car ride home, with the two friends who were furious at their pal for having put them through such a nightmare.

And then there’s an eerie tale told by Dean Treadway, one of the hosts of the podcast Movie Geeks United. He has given me permission to copy and paste his remembrance of his first encounter with Romero’s classic, and I’m happy to present it to you now:


I had a similar first time viewing experience. Late night on WTCG Channel 17 (the early TBS), probably about 12 midnight or so. The film scared me to no end at that age (around 12). I should add, while I was watching the movie on WTCG (which was then still a little ol' Atlanta station), somewhere around the middle of the film, technical difficulties arose at the station. Back then, when that would happen on TV, everything would stop, and get real quiet. The screen might go black for a few seconds... and then a station logo would come up on screen, sometimes still silently. This happened that night, and as I was sitting in our TV room, with the picture window behind me pointed towards the inky backyard darkness, that inimitable station announcer came on and said those immortal words, in that low authoritative but worrying tone: ‘One moment, please.’ More silence. By this time, I was looking outside at the dark nothing, awaiting the moment where a lone zombie would come and smoosh his rotting face against the glass. It was the apex of my fright up to that point. Romero's movie came back on after a minute or so, a seemingly protracted minute. I was relieved, up to a point (still had the last half of the movie to go, including the extra somber ending). But I never forgot that one moment. It's stayed with me for years and still gives me the gooseflesh. And I still wonder if someone at the station was punking us viewers with a phony crisis for scaremongering giggles. I'll never know, but I do know that it worked.”

That’s the best Night of the Living Dead story I’ve certainly ever heard, and I am ultra-envious of Dean for having lived and survived it. May Halloween be full of similar frights, humanoid reptiles and ghouls and other unexpected, unimaginable creatures lurching out of the dark of the imagination whose only mission is to grab us kicking and screaming back to the good old days of universally chilled childhood spinal columns, recharging us to deal with the real-world demons that will always be waiting when the lights come back on.



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