Jesus Christ Superstar

We went Tuesday to this screening at the Archlight Theater in Hollywood. The show was not quite sold out but it was quite full and everyone was very enthusiastic. Before the Q and A and the movie, the theater was filled with the sounds of Ted Neeley’s new music project and it sounded quite good. We arrived about half an hour before the show so we got to hear most of the album called “Rock Opera”. The Panel consisted of the promoter for the tour Frank Munoz, who acted as M.C. and interviewer, Ted Neely who played Christ in the movie, Barry Dennen who was Pontius Pilot, and Robert Iscove the choreographer who was essentially a second director on the film. Each of them shared some charming stories and some dramatic behind the scenes pieces of information. All of them spoke warmly of the late Carl Anderson, who fans know was Judas in the movie and had a terrific soul voice.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a phenomenon that many of the young people of today would not recognize. The idea started as a concept album, it was turned into a stage piece, than a touring Broadway show and finally it was adapted to the screen. Imagine a record without any pop stars on it, becoming a huge best seller and dominating the charts. Then try to visualize that being turned into a show. Basically, it started as a recording and everything else followed.

I saw the staged version of the musical in a touring production of a Canadian Company at my high school auditorium. I suspect that this was one of the many unauthorized versions that were subsequently shut down by lawsuits around the world, they were playing before the Broadway show had even opened. After the Broadway run , Jesus Christ Superstar did a stand at the Universal Amphitheater in the open air. I did not get a chance to see it there but I remember television coverage of the event and I thought the show under the stars with the lights of the San Fernando Valley off to the side would have been wonderful. 

When the film opened in 1973, I did go to see it. I think my screening was at the old UA Theater on Colorado Blvd. but it is forty years ago now and I am not as sure of this as I am of other memories from the time. It was one of the films on the original “Movie A Day” project that got me started blogging in the first play. However I did not do that post. I was in Alaska for a week and my daughter Amanda covered it for me. You can find her original post here. As a kid, Amanda had a little cassette “Walkman” (remember those?) and I had recorded a copy of the movie soundtrack for her that she listened to incessantly. To this day she still rates Jesus Christ Superstar among her favorite movies. Of course we watch it every year along with other religious epics at Easter time.

The touring version of the film is an amazing looking digital film with a spectacular sound mix. I was very impressed with the way the movie looked but especially the way it sounded. The little girl sitting next to me [the one who was eight or so and not my daughter , who had turned back into a little girl while we were watching] sang every song and hummed along with the music. She could not contain her enthusiasm and clapped out loud by herself several times. She was joined in applauding by the rest of the audience after some particularly great pieces. “Gethsemane” brings tears and it nearly brought the house down.

During the Q and A, Frank and Ted asked if anyone in the audience had actually been in the movie. Only in Hollywood my friends, there were a half dozen dancers and background performers who had come out for the show. They all came down at the end for a group picture. One of them had played the apostle Matthew in the movie and several of “the women”, were also there. Each time one of them appeared on screen in the movie a whoop would go up and we could tell exactly which actress was there.

After the show there was a merchandise table and I had the pleasure of being served by Wil Wheaton. I’m sure there is a connection there, but I don’t know what it is. I’m not usually a celebrity stalker but Josh Groban reached over my shoulder to shake hands with someone at the table at about the same time. Close Encounters of the Odd kind I guess. We did take a picture with Barry Dennan who was so fantastic in the movie and he was quite sweet to us as we greeted him. There was a long line to a meet and greet with Ted Neeley, after waiting about 45 minutes without much movement, we had to move on. It was still a great experience.

I don’t really collect autographs but I do collect posters and there was one for the film screen tour that was signed by Ted Neeley, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennan and Josh Mostel. I could not say no and I look forward to getting it framed. For now here is a little sneak peek.

3 Days to Kill

After yesterdays orgy of films in the Best Picture Showcase, it was time for a little palate cleaning with a new release that won’t be nominated for anything next year. That does not mean that it is worthless but it does mean that this movie is designed only to be consumed and disposed of like the popcorn you should be overdosing on while it plays out in front of you. Kevin Costner has always been a favorite of mine, and although he has gone out of vogue a bit, he appears to be enjoying a renaissance. This is the second of three movies that he has out in the first four months of the year and the second one where he is playing spy games.

When the movie starts you might be tempted to laugh immediately. Two of the characters that the CIA is going after are codenamed “The Wolf” and “The Albino”. I expected Clint Eastwood to show up and he and Costner to scale a mountain in the alps. This just sounded like stereotypically cliched writing from a 1970s spy film. When Amber Heard show up repeatedly in black leather or latex, like some dominatrix that walked in out of a Roger Moore 007 outing, it was even more embarrassing. I began to wonder if people had lost any sense of reality and what century we are in. There is an effective shoot out to begin the movie, but the exterior of the hotel did make it look like an abandoned area of Serbia, which given the technical credits would not be surprising.

As it turns out, the film is a bit of a comedy spy film. They try to play most of the explosions, chases and shootouts straight, but every now and then, Costner’s character makes contact with an opposition counterpart and a relationship begins to form. It is a little one sided but it works to make this a different kind of movie. The character of Ethan Renner is motivated by a different type of ticking clock and it is not just the bad guys he has to tangle with. He is trying to reconnect with his daughter Zoey, played by Hailee Steinfeld, from the “True Grit” remake back in 2010. She is a little older now and works well as the antipathetic and somewhat estranged child of a spy. It turns out that the nut does not fall far from the tree when it comes to the truth department.

The most satisfying element of the film takes place when our hardened spy takes on punks that are in over their depth. Four young men on the brink of drug induced date rape get the sort of ass kicking that every father would like to inflict on someone who dares to even look sideways at his princess. He suckers some professionals with a doorstop and simply displays a gun as a way of coping with some bouncer types at an underground rave. The laws of France appear to be a little to liberated from my point of view when it comes to your personal property, but Ethan manages to negotiate a sticky situation with his apartment in a manner that lets us know that even though he is a bad ass, he is not really a bad man.

Three or four times in the story, a convenient kryptonite moment shows up to make a conventional action scene a little more unique. It was actually annoying the last time it was used and it only exists there to give Amber Heard’s character one more thing to do during the story. The plot elements building a bond between father and daughter don’t go to the extremes of having her put in personal jeopardy by the villain, that was a change that I appreciated. The romantic interludes between attractive but older actors are told without the graphics that would turn younger viewers off, and the settings in Paris, make the film feel a little more familiar but still with an exotic locale. No one will remember this for long but it is enjoyable for as long as you sit in the theater.

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 1 Preview

For the Eighth year in a row we will be attending the AMC Best Picture Showcase. Since the Academy expanded to allow the possibility of up to 10 films being nominated, they have had two years with ten nominees and three straight years with nine. I have as yet been unable to convince the wonderful Mrs. Kirkham to attempt the 24 hour marathon of films. We have instead, gone to the two weekend event the last three years. Once again, this year we will be attending at the AMC Santa Anita located in the Arcadia Shopping Center. While not all of the family will be there (Someone has to feed and watch the dogs), we will be joined by our friends the Yennys. Anne has frequently joined us but this will be only the second time that we could convince John to give up work or the golf course and take the plunge.

The menu for tomorrow looks like this.

 We have already seen all of the films for this weekend, so this is an opportunity to view them in objective terms as the Awards close in upon us. With the exception of “The Wolf of Wall Street” a return visit is a delightful prospect. It is likely that we will skip Mr. Scorsese’s three hour indulgence of boorish behavior and instead try to have a nice meal before experiencing the trauma of  “12 Years a Slave” again. After the event tomorrow, I will post some thoughts and the links to my prior reviews. If there are any significant differences in my evaluation, I look forward to sharing them with you. For now, we will just try to enjoy the popcorn and admire the work of the talented people who brought us these films.

Here are the links to the original reviews:

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2013/12/philomena.html
http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2013/11/dallas-buyers-club.html

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-wolf-of-wall-street.html
http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2013/11/12-years-slave.html

The Monuments Men

The reviews have not been great and the buzz almost killed this for me. Then two things happened to make me once again want to see this movie. I read a review from one of the sites that I visit (which I usually avoid if I am planning on seeing the film) and I saw a repeat of the original story on CBS Sunday morning from four or five years ago. The story of what American forces were trying to do during WW II to save art history was compelling in a 6 minute slot on a news show, so how could this be a problem? I also trust the taste of my blogging colleague Keith and the Movies, and he was very enthusiastic. So since it is President’s Day and I had the morning off before class this evening, I went ahead and saw this terrific film. (Thanks Keith)

“Monuments Men” tells the story of a small group of Allied art experts who were tasked with trying to locate the art that Hitler had looted from across Europe. There are some back-story inserts about particular works of art that are then used as focus points for the dramatized version of the story. I suppose if you read the book that the film is based on, you would get a clearer idea of what was fiction and what was invented. I think I can pick out enough of the dramatic bits to say that this  film is mostly an imposition of plot on top of a real world story. The plot is serviceable enough and even better, it highlights the elements that make you proud to be an American. As the CBS story pointed out, we did not take these works back to American Museums, we tried to return them to their rightful places. The story also mentioned that art pieces are still appearing seventy years later, in private collections and the work of clearing the legacy of theft is ongoing.

George Clooney stars in and directed, from a script he co-wrote. When he did “Good Night, and Good Luck”, he was the toast of the town, by the time he did “Leatherheads” he was just toast. His last few films as director have not been well received. I did not see the “Ides of March” but I think I know what turns some other critics off. He keeps the story straight and does not shy away from sentiment. Cynicism is the coin of the realm in critical circles and there is not an ounce of it in “Monuments Men”. There are clear heroes and villains and a task that is difficult. Sometimes a race to the treasure aspect or a dramatic incident is used to make the audience stay invested, but never in a way that talks down to them. His style may be just too direct and workmanlike to please cineastes, but the average film goer should be plenty satisfied with this story.

I especially enjoyed the pairings in the film that carry much of the entertainment value. Clooney and Damon play off one another like the frequent partners they have been. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin have a nice sequence in a truck that plays up humor at first and then tragedy.  Bill Murray and Bob Balaban get the most opportunities to make us smile, both in the warm embrace of home and the smug satisfaction of besting an evil opponent or a scared kid, and knowing the difference. The truth is that all of the real Monuments Men were in a real war with real bullets flying. There are sometimes a few too many words in the speeches that tell us how important this project is, but they are sincere words and I did not think they hurt the story at all.

I guess one of the criticisms is that by being so sincere the film plays flat. I found it refreshing that the soldiers did the same kinds of things I member seeing in B & W WWII films starring John Wayne, Errol Flynn or a dozen other stars from the forties. No one takes out a baseball bat and pounds the truth out of someone, they use deception, reason and righteous anger to get the job done. There are several points where the story does have to payoff given the way the script is written, and those outcomes were fairly satisfying to me. In a flash forward coda, I thought at first I was seeing an amazing make up job but than I realized the director managed to get his father into the film and that was a kick. The former host of AMC, before commercials and “Breaking Bad” was a nice presence and suggests just how heartfelt the whole enterprise was.

Drew and Bob: The Masters of Movie Art

The great video above is from “Beyond the Marquee” and is part of an ongoing web series devoted to the movies. We had the pleasure of visiting the exhibit the day of the reception. Unfortunately our plans for the evening precluded us from staying for what looked like a wonderful gathering. Tom Peak, the son of artist Bob Peak was there early and he spoke to several of us about his father’s work. I saw Drew Struzan pull up and get out of his car just as we were leaving. It took a lot of energy on my part not to blow off our plans for later in the evening and just follow him inside.

I’d taken one cell phone shot before I noticed the sign asking that there be no photography. I stopped immediately but after seeing the work displayed in the above video, my guess is that it will not offend anyone too much if I share that picture here.

The works here are by the late Bob Peak, an artist who defined movie illustration design in the 60s and seventies. I’m staring straight ahead as I type this and I have his work for Excalibur on the cover of the Laserdisc on the wall. According to the exhibit notes, Bob Peak was most proud of the campaign art he did for “Apocalypse Now”. This art for “Silverado” hung on my wall in the form of a poster for several years. I may dig it out and return it to it’s previous spot.

I have written a couple of posts on the Drew Struzan documentary, including the listing on my ten favorite films from last year. The exhibit gave me a chance to see the detail work on some of those iconic images. I envy those with the powers and imagination to create in this manner.

If you are in the Southern California area, you really should take the trip over to Forest Lawn Glendale to see the exhibit. The museum there is lovely and although it might be disconcerting to be at a cemetery, the views are spectacular and it is free.

Lone Survivor

I must tell you, I am pretty damn devastated right now. This movie is a tribute to the warrior spirit that defends us in some of the darkest places on Earth. The fortitude and physical stamina that it takes to become a Navy Seal is hard for anyone to imagine, and that’s just the training phase. When these men stand up for us they take risks and make sacrifices that frankly put the rest of us to shame. There are moments here when you will wince with pain from what you are seeing, and then you will remember that you are only watching a movie and the men that when through it were not just acting, they were living and dying in this nightmare. Much like the brutal opening of “Saving Private Ryan”, the combat sequences here are relentless and unforgiving. Director Peter Berg has made a real effort to put us into the fight visually and emotionally and he does a terrific job.

There is a slow build up to the mission’s combat and that gives us a chance to learn a few things about our heroes. This was a group story rather than just focusing on the titular figure. Even the Seals that are not part of the ground team are given a place in the story. It is a tough culture of warriors that we are peeking at but they clearly have a sense of loyalty and comradery. It’s clear that they are all capable, even the freshest among them. They are doing a job in a place that is far from home and all of them would love to be at home but as we hear in the narration, there is something that burns in them that makes this job their life. At the end of the film we get glimpses of what they sacrifice to do the job, and no one could say that they should not be honored for the choice they made.

The staging of the battle between the Taliban forces the Red Wing team encounters is up close and personal. We can see the injuries that they inflict and that are inflicted upon them. The spray of crimson in these shots is not the grotesque joke of a horror film or a mindless action movie. It is a visualization of the ugliness of war. Death can be sudden or it can be prolonged. The team never stops fighting for every chance they have, even when the odds are overwhelmingly great. There are two sequences that especially bring home the toughness and the desperation of the Seals. They are twice forced to fall back from positions in a way that is hard to watch. It is not a planned exit strategy but a nearly suicidal leap of faith that moves them down the side of the mountain. As the bodies spin through rocks, trees and assorted brush, we witness the brutal effect on the human form and roll our fingers up and duck our heads in coordination with the Seals. In a regular action film, you would see the spy/soldier/explorer walk away with a minimal amount of damage. This film shows you what the damage would really look and feel like. It is not something that you just brush off.

Some of the secondary team are taken out in a shocking moment that reflects the capricious nature of battle. We watch as four men fight for every inch of their lives and make the most of every opportunity they get, and at the same time we see a dozen others who get no opportunities and no choices and they are gone in an instant. All of them could have been in the fight if given a chance, but that is not the way war works. It sometimes snuffs out the strong and smart and brave without giving them the same valor, even though they deserve it no less. The four main actors are all excellent in their roles, but Mark Wallberg and Ben Foster deserve a little extra notice for the exceptional work they do in playing out the grim parts of the story. Foster’s final scene is a heartbreaking combination of acting and direction that is sad and grim and real. Wallberg has an opportunity to actin some non combat scenes toward the end of the movie that reveal a little bit more about why we are fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban may have been freedom fighting mujahedin at one point, but they are oppressive bullies who are trying to gain control over a population that is not all on their side. There are people in Afghanistan who want to be left to their own devices and traditions. We can only hope that they will be able to carry on when the U.S. has moved out. I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that the final act gave me and while the movie tries hard to remain non-political, this part of the story does carry some weight in explaining why our presence has been needed.

We were originally scheduled to see this when it opened wide, with our friends who currently have a son serving in the Marines in Afghanistan. I know they would be proud of all the American forces fighting on our behalf, but they might also be reminded of the danger their oldest is in. This is the kind of film that honors American efforts in the war on terror rather than mocking it. Hollywood has tried to feed us stories in the past about American hubris or arrogance in these conflicts. Certainly we have been less than perfect, but an audience should get a chance to see the valiant efforts of our troops as well as the faults in our policies. This film has been a success because it is a well made look at real people doing an unimaginably difficult job and trying to live up to the values we want the world to know us by. I may have lucked out that our plans fell through to see this with them, I escaped the specter of weeping in front of my friends and knowing that they have so much more reason to weep than I do. Thank Goodness we have such men to depend on.

007 Double Feature At the Egyptian

For the second week in a row, I made it down to Hollywood to catch a classic on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater. Actually there were two classics, both James Bond films from the heyday of the 1960s. These are the two films that most turned 007 into a a massive popular cultural phenomenon and the most consistently successful film series of  all time. The pairing was irresistible to me and although I could occassionally hear the snickering of hipsters in the audience over the costumes in the movies or a piece of plot line that seems a little fantastic, the general response was one of love from the hundreds of us who managed to make it there and see the first and greatest James Bond, Sean Connery.

Goldfinger

It was just last June that I saw Goldfinger on the big screen along with another Sean Connery feature “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. I can and do regularly watch this film. It is as entertaining as any movie you are likely to see and it is in my opinion the greatest of all the James Bond films. I won’t relive the entire countdown to Skyfall that I did in 2012, but there are a few posts that you might enjoy here.

This first is a memory piece and review that I did early in the year leading up to Skyfall.

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2012/03/goldfinger-double-0-blast-from-past.html

This is the KAMAD Video Blog that I posted after the Father’s Day visit to see 007 and Dr. Jones together.

http://kirkhamamovieaday.blogspot.com/2013/06/fathers-day-with-sean-connery.html

I did notice something a bit odd in last night’s screening. The end credit did not list the correct movie coming up next in the sequence.  Here is the way it looks in the DVD remaster from a half dozen years ago:

It properly lists “Thunderball” as the next film. On last night’s print the film listed was “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Amanda and I talked about this and she is of the opinion that this was the original listing because they did not know that “Thunderball” would be next due to all the legal issues surrounding the property. I tended to agree with her except that “You Only Live Twice” came before “OHMSS” and “Thunderball” was released the year after “Goldfinger” so they should have been in production at the time they did release the third film. The answer according the IMDB is:

 In the original end title credits, which featured the famous “James Bond will return in…” teaser, the next film advertised was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). However, when the producers began pre-production, they were unable to secure the Swiss locations needed for the film and decided to make Thunderball (1965) instead. The end title teaser was later changed to advertise “Thunderball”.

 So that mystery is solved for the moment.

Thunderball

I don’t think I have a previous post exclusively on “Thunderball”.  I do however have this section of a post that I have copied over for you:

The original “Thunderball” was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1960s. When adjusted for inflation it stands as the most financially successful of all the Bond movies. The audacity of Goldfinger was multiplied by a bigger canvas for the story telling. More exotic locations and bigger set pieces are put into place. As a kid I wanted the 007 lunchbox with all the frogmen fighting underwater. It was an image that sold all of us on the adventure we had coming. As far as I know, this is the first story to exploit the idea of nuclear terrorism. It was not of course the last. Here was SPECTRE as a real organization, with a board of directors and a chairman presiding over crime and doling out death as a punishment for failing the company. In a way, with all of the numbers, and secret locations and passwords or codes, it is the mirror image of MI6, and the bureaucracy that Bond actually represents.
There are great sequences in the picture and some real imaginative gizmos in the story. The jet-pack is just so outlandish that it gives the ejector seat a run for it’s money as the most over the top toys of 007 in the early films. The miniature breathing apparatus looks like it could be practical for emergencies. Bond gets taken for a ride in an early Mustang, he has an underwater version of the jet-pack, and he gets yanked into the sky forty years before Batman uses the same technology in “The Dark Knight”. The problems with the film have to do with pacing. A slog through the stuff at Shrublands, hide and seek in the Mardi Gras like parade in Jamaica, and the underwater battle looks cool but needed some editing. “Thunderball” is like one of those great Thanksgiving meals with so many choices, that are so rich and you want to try them all. When you do, you feel a little sick afterwards. “Thunderball” doesn’t exactly make me sick, but my blood sugar is usually a little high after I watch it. I should get up and go for a walk, but I usually just fall asleep contentedly. Another blogger El Santo, did a fantastic piece on the music from “Thunderball’, that goes way beyond the theme song. I hope he is OK with my linking it here, you should read and listen.

I will also mention that this film was one from my youth that I know gave me a nightmare or two. When Angelo Palazzi playing the doppelganger of Major François Derval gets stuck in the seat belt in the plane he just hijacked and landed in the ocean, Largo cuts his air hose and he drowns flailing away for help and oxygen. It gave me the creeps watching it and I dreamed about that death on more than one occasion. 

Sometimes there are little things that might slip by on the television screen that will not escape your attention on a screen thirty feet high and seventy feet wide. Last night I remembered one of those weird little details when the image came up for just a brief couple of seconds. There is a dog, taking a leak in the middle of a scene, and it either was too complicated to shoot it over or the editor just thought it was a lark and left it in. I went in search and fopund it on my DVD of the film and thought I’d share it with you here.

 As Bond is trying to escape in the confusion of the parade, two of his pursuers are bisected in this shot by a random animal lifting it’s leg and letting it out. Amanda missed it but I have now made sure that none of you reading this will ever miss it again. 

We have a long wait until the next James Bond film, but with a rich 50 year history and opportunities like this screening at the American Cinematique  at the Egyptian, we will always have plenty to talk about.