Another in the series of classics at the AMC Theaters. This one appears to finish off several weeks of gladiator based type films. I went and saw “The Ten Commandments” and “Gladiator” but I missed “Ben Hur”, I think it was playing on Easter Sunday and we had family plans. As I’ve said before, movies are best in a theater and “Spartacus” is no exception. Interestingly enough, this is not the first, second or even third time I’ve seen it on the big screen. Much like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Jaws” I will always make an effort to see “Spartacus” on a theater screen. In college, I went to a screening at a revival theater. When the movie was restored in 1991, I saw it a couple of times. Four or five years ago, there was a one night festival at the Hollywood Arclight theater. They had a different classic movie playing in each theater, just the one time, all screening at the same time. They did that program at least twice and I had to make some tough choices. You see all of the screenings were hosted by someone affiliated with the movie. I skipped George Lucas and “Star Wars” and Warren Beatty and “Reds”, because in the Dome, “Spartacus” was being introduced by Kirk Douglas himself. At nearly ninety and having had a stroke several years earlier, he was still a great story teller and a wonderful host. The ten minutes he spent talking with us was one of the best memories I have of my movie going life.
Mr. Douglas did not make an appearance today, at least not in person. We expected some friends of my wife but they never showed up. For a few minutes it looked like we would be the only people in the theater. Three other groups finally came in just as the movie was starting with an “Overture”. The house lights went down and we settled in for the kind of epic that does not get made much anymore. The three and a half hours do have quite a bit of action and there are some big battle scenes near the end, but this is really an intimate story of a man struggling against slavery and fashioned by the circumstances he finds himself in. I was impressed with how well it hold the attention even though there is not a bunch of quick cutting, CGI grandeur or plot twists that surprise at the end. It is a solid drama with a passionate and surprisingly tender love story to go along with it.
Famously written by blacklisted screen author Dalton Trumbo, who got a screen credit because producer Douglas was having none of that blacklist stuff stop him, makes the character of Spartacus come alive. The story is based on a real uprising of gladiator slaves in the century before Christ. Events are not clear and almost certainly large liberties were taken in the personal story that was told in the film, but historically, the movie seems to get a lot of things right. This is the one film that Stanley Kubrick directed that he did not have total control over. He did however make spectacular use of the widescreen process and managed to get the cinematographer an Academy Award for his work on the movie. There are a couple of very effective choices that Kubrick made when shooting the film. My favorite was his decision to focus on Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode as they awaited their turn in the arena. Instead of highlighting the combat that was taking place before they were to fight, we see only glimpses of Rex Harrison and his opponent through small openings in the paddock that the gladiators waited in. The tension and resignation on the two faces tells a completely different story and the more important one. It becomes clear why the victor would not kill his opponent and why the revolt started.
The other choiceI admired is a combination of the script and the director. They postpone the romance through an interlude where Spartacus is mocked for not mounting and taking the woman provided to him. The love story between the slave girl played by Jean Simmons, who is used as a sexual reward by the trainers of the gladiators, and the reluctant Spartacus, is amazingly sweet given the conditions that the two of them find themselves in. When they ultimately come together as human beings rather than animals being mated, it is a victory for humanity and restraint.
The cast of the film is amazing. It includes Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in a subtlety sexual moment. The scene in the bath, where Olivier discusses oysters and snails with Curtis, had been cut and when the restoration was done, the dialogue was re-looped by Anthony Hopkins filling in for Lord Olivier. It is much clearer why Antonitus runs off in the middle of the speech Crassus is making about submitting to Rome. It is only clear after hearing the bath conversation that Antonitus was about to be violated by Crassus. This and a dozen other moments in the movie make the story work so effectively. When Tony Curtis entertains the gladiator rebels with magic and a poem (song), it is a quiet moment that sets up another romantic clinch between Douglas and Simmons. The movie just gets each of this moments right, and it does so at a pace that is slow but correct for the story.
The movie will be playing two more times on Wednesday at a variety of AMC theaters. Look around and see if you can find one in your area that is playing this wonderful film. You will be happy to see some terrific actors doing great work on a noble film that will enthrall you with a story not just visual effects.
Why anyone would need a review for this is not clear. If you like the idea of watching giant monsters destroy a city and battle it out among themselves, then you will already be queuing up for this and you will have a good time. If you think that special effects movies and worldwide destruction are being over done in films these days, then you will probably want to stay home and find a more intimate horror film to spend an evening with. All in all, you will get what you expect from this movie. There are some surprises, and some disappointments but they are minor in contrast to the spectacle of a 300 foot high gorilla-like lizard wrecking havoc on most of the stuff around him.
The movie is fortunately a slow burn. Some people want the money shot from the get go, but like romance, anticipation and deferral can make the ultimate outcome so much more rewarding. There is an effective action beat to start the movie but it may be unsatisfying because we don’t really see a monster or even know for sure what is going on. Bryan Cranston plays a supervising engineer at a nuclear power plant in Japan. I like Bryan Cranston, I’ve never seen “Breaking Bad” but I know his work from many other movies and TV shows. His performance is a little consciously showy. He is not quite chewing the furniture because the part calls for him to be a bit “mad”, but it is noticeable that he is playing it that way. His wife is also a specialist who is responsible for monitoring and controlling leaks of radioactivity. She is played by the Academy Award winning actress Juliette Binoche. We have barely had time to get started when before you know it, both of these characters disappear from the story. Flash forward fifteen years and their son played by “Kick Ass” star Aaron Taylor Johnson becomes the focal point for the story. All three are excellent but they have little opportunity to emote or build character because the real star of the movie is a big monster still to be revealed.
Father and son briefly reunite to discover the truth behind the accident at the nuclear power plant a decade and a half earlier. The original Godzilla from the 1950s was a mediation on the dangers of nuclear war and the power of radiation to destroy the planet. This story is more about the dangers of government cover up and the risks we take when we seek to supress information rather than shine a light on it. This last couple of sentences suggests a level of philosophical thought that is never really developed or cared about. It is just in the background to give us something to pay attention to until monsters start duking it out. This movie is filled with halfway developed points to keep us involved until something reaches it’s creepy foot out of a hole to do some destruction. Taylor Johnson has a wife and son who are neglected by his military career but love him anyway. Academy Award nominees Sally Hawkings and Ken Watanabe are scientists with something to say about the dangers of screwing with the environment and the power of nature, but they are simply the heralds for “Godzilla” himself. A lost little boy will be a surrogate for Taylor Johnson to care for at a given point.
Last year in “Pacific Rim” there were giant robots fighting giant monsters. In “Godzilla”, following the tradition of dozens of Japanese predecessors, monsters fight each other and we are bystanders with a rooting interest. The explanations for the MUTO monster are a bit confusing and they are placed in the narrative in a way that tries to avoid having some scientist give us a lecture for five minutes, but they are coming at the same time that we are being delivered information about “Godzilla” and that made some of the characteristics unclear. It will only bother you for a couple of minutes because soon the monsters are tearing up cities and being general douches on a grand scale, and at that point no one will be thinking about their origins, mating and eating habits. Not when Cesar’s Palace is getting shredded before our eyes. There is a good sequence featured in the teaser above that shows a HALO action and makes use of the same style of wailing choruses found in “2001”. However, it is the monster fights in the big cities that everyone came to see, and except for the fact they are frequently shot in the dark, with dusk clouds obscuring our vision, they are pretty good.
We ended up paying $16 a ticket to see this in 3D at a time that worked for us. You absolutely do not need to see this in 3D. There was nothing special or dramatic or interesting that was enhanced by the third dimension. Now the volume in the theater and the size of the screen will make a difference to you so be sure to take that into consideration when making a movie selection. “Godzilla” will be a place holder in the summer movie line up. It will do good business and people will be entertained for the running time, but it is not special enough to think back on for long or to see a second or third time. Half of my enjoyment of the movie came from the Hot Tamale candy I dumped in my box of buttery popcorn. Searching for one of those treats was able to distract me enough that I could ignore how standard much of the movie narrative was. I don’t know that American audiences will take Godzilla to heart as a hero like the Japanese have, but if you liked the T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park, then maybe a “Godzilla” stuffed toy should be under your Christmas tree this year.
So we headed back up to Forest Lawn Glendale today for the screening of “Drew:The Man Behind the Poster”. This was my second time to see the film on a big screen and the second time we got the privilege of listening to the man himself speak about his life and art. The film was showing in the large auditorium at the Museum site at the cemetery. You enter through a beautiful sanctum that resembles a European church of massive proportions. The screening auditorium is probably meant for funerals attended by several hundred mourners, but today it was loaded with fans. At first it looked like maybe a hundred and fifty or so made it out on this glorious Southern California Saturday, but by the time the film had ended the numbers seem to have doubled. It was a very nice turnout for the screening, Q and A, and signing.
The movie was great, I actually own it on DVD, so revisiting it was not the main goal of this trip. It is nice however to listen to an appreciative audience react to the comments made by the figures being interviewed in the movie and to hear their laughter at a couple of the things Drew shares about his experiences. The gallery of art next door is open for two more weeks and feature art from movie illustrator Bob Peak as well. We missed a chance when we first saw the exhibit to meet Mr. Stuzan at the opening night reception. He was arriving just as we were setting off for some other plans. So our purpose here was to shake his hand, share our appreciation and get a couple of items signed for our own collection.
Drew was very modest and unassuming as he took several questions immediately after the film. He was also very quick witted and made several humorous comments about the questions and the subjects they focused on. The one question that seemed to be most interesting to most of the crowd, was whether he had been contacted to come out of “retirement” and do the posters for the new “Star Wars” films. He demurred and said no one had contacted him but if a loyal friend like George Lucas asked for a favor, he would always be there for him.
After the film screened there was a short break for people to have some refreshments out in the patio area between the Theater and the museum. Everyone was having a great time and we saw several people with interesting items that they had brought for Drew to sign. One guy and his wife had a large lobby banner from the last Indiana Jones film, several people had brought various posters to have them signed. I saw a couple of “Star Wars” posters and several “Back to the Future” posters as well. Amanda made a dash over to the museum store to pick up two copies of the beautiful book that he has released with fantastic photos of his work.
She was a little surprised that the book was more expensive than she thought, but when opened we discovered that she had purchased copies that had already been signed. That gave us the out we were looking for. We too had brought some items to get signed but we knew that he would only be able to sign one item per fan. This meant that instead of getting just the books signed, we would be able to have a permanent memento that was truly unique. This made us both a little giddy and we quickly finished the soda and cookie we were enjoying and zipped back into the theater to queue up for the signing table. There were people milling around but no line had started so I took the opportunity to speak with a couple of other attendees and share some stories about our love for the poster work of our host this day. I suddenly noticed Eric Sharkey standing a few feet away and approached him. Eric is the director and co-producer of the film. Back in November, I’d had a chance to meet him and talk about the movie at the Archlight screening. I reintroduced myself and thanked him again for being a big enough fan to follow through and put this film together. He had traveled three thousand miles across country tobe here today, and he was just as kind and generous in listening to me prattle on as he had been before. I was forward enough to ask if he minded taking a picture with me, and he honestly seemed surprised that anyone was interested in doing so, but also very pleased that I had asked.
I was delighted to have the picture and glad to share it here. As you can see behind us, there were some people mulling around but in thirty seconds a line suddenly appeared and we moved quickly to join it. The number of people who had stayed after the screening and had something they wanted to share with Drew and get signed was pretty impressive. It took a few minutes to get things started so I took advantage to document the line with a couple of shaky shots. No flash was used in the sanctuary, and my phone is so old I don’t have one anyway, but I did find the night time setting and got these quick looks at the line.
We were about four or five back from the guy in the right hand side of the picture here. There were maybe thirty people in front of us but everyone was in a splendid mood and we all just talked to each other. Behind us was a much longer segment of the line that extended all the way through the long passage area nearly out the front door of the chapel. You may not be able to see it clearly but the line here goes though a doorway, a foyer for the theater, and then into the high ceiling ed cathedral area.
Once the signing began the line moved quickly for us. We were not rushed at all but the process seemed to be very efficient. As we walked out afterwards, I was glad we were in the front quarter of the line, because it was starting to be a long day and I had a friend who had flown into town and was having dinner with us in a couple of hours.
When we got up to Drew, I went first and I pulled out my “Revenge of the Jedi” poster that I had bought for a Christmas gift for my wife and I in December 1982. Just a few days after I had already put it in a frame and hung it on the wall of our apartment, George Lucas announced that the name of the film had been changed to “Return of the Jedi”. The value of my fifteen dollar investment multipled by ten or twenty times and we had a unique collectors item.
Drew gave me some good advice on where we ought to place the signature. He discouraged the idea of signing on the textured section and offered to sign with a silver sharpie on the black area at the bottom. I joked that he was the expert on signing, since the only thing I ever signed was a check. He quickly joked back with me, “Well did you bring one, show me.” The guy in front of me had brought the Black Sabbath album with him to be signed and I saw a reprint of a “Revenge” poster also. Amanda had suggested weeks ago, that we take the jacket from “John Carpenter’s The Thing” to get it signed. The Laser Disc cover was an unusual item and Drew commented on it by pointing out the places that the video company had enhanced and extended his work from the poster.
It was terrific getting to speak with Mr. Struzan for even just the few moments we shared. He was enthusiastic with everyone and friendly as could be. We walked away with a very satisfied heart and a great memory. There was a raffle/drawing after the screening and several nice prizes were distributed. We did not have the winning numbers, but I did get a nice shot of the beautiful art lithography that summarized Drew’s work with George Lucas, and had both Drew’s signature and the incredibly rare George Lucas signature as well.
I’m shamefully envious of that lucky guy who had the right combination of numbers and got a ticket twenty people after I did.
On returning home after our dinner with my friend, I thought I’d add a couple of photo close-ups of the graphically elegant signature of Drew Stuzan on our two treasures.
First up, “The Thing”:
Finally, here is my original “Revenge of the Jedi” poster signed by a true original, the talented and kind Drew Stuzan:
This list rocks and if you want to enjoy the Southern California Summer, you need to find one of these events to attend.
We have a new winner in the race to be the weakest Spider-Man movie ever. Leading the pack for seven years was the nearly universally reviled “Spider-Man 3”. While it was certainly the least favorite of mine, I have never been a hater like so many others. It was a disappointment and at times a little silly. What it never was was boring. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is just that. Equally bloated with plot elements and villains, but managing to be entertaining for only about a third of it’s more than two hour running time. The second entry in the reboot of a series that probably did not need to restart so soon, this film will be the biggest disappointment of the year to geeks and movie executives everywhere. The comic book fans will pick it apart for it’s flaws and the money men will second guess how they took a sure thing and turned it into this.
There are long stretches in the movie where we get an ill defined domestic drama featuring Peter Parker, His girlfriend Gwen and his Aunt May. This is not what people turn out for. The back and forth love affair has a couple of sweet moments, but it all feels pointless and without any real motivation. If Peter is going to make the decision to stop seeing Gwen, why does he spend all his time following her around and mooning over her? Why does Gwen take him back when she knows how he is not able to make a commitment? Why would anyone care is the two of them have created no stake for the audience to begin with? Maybe if I had re-watched the last film right before seeing this one, it might have helped, but I don’t think so.
The opening chase and battle with a barely recognizable and incoherent Paul Giamatti as a Russian gangster who may figure in the plot later, was sadly divisive for me. The way it is shown, from camera positions and Peter’s perspective and then at street level if gracefully imagined. It just doesn’t look very good. The animated CGI images are blurry around the edges, the colors look weak and it seemed flat. It is possible that this resulted from the effort to make this a 3D spectacular, but I did not see it in 3D and it looked cheap. The spitting gibberish uttered by Giamatti in the opening is Shakespeare compared to the “Ve av vays of making u talk” accented dialogue that comes from the “scientist” who is supposed to contain the villain “Electro” later in the film. It was literally embarrassing to listen to this cliche speak from the screen. This movie feels slapped together in a way that “Spider-Man 3” might have been, but at least there, the seams were only visible when Peter Parker goes dark. In this movie, every villain is half thought out, every Peter Parker domestic problem is written as if it were important but plays like it is not, and all of the action scenes are less than exciting.
I think Andrew Garfield is a great choice for the part. He and Emma Stone have a nice chemistry, but their story pales in comparison to the Mary Jane material that was explored in the first series of films. The reason it does not live up to it’s potential is that it was underwritten. The conflict they have should play out with more emotional investment and it is instead brittle and conventional. I am a softie when it comes to emotions. I love those Spielberg moments that deliberately try to pull a tear from your eye. A good commercial or a dog story on the news or even a piece of gossip about a kid in my wife’s class can make be sniffle. The resolution of this story left me unmoved. I’m told that fans of the Spider-Man comics think the Gwen Stacy story line is the apex of the emotional journey that Peter takes. I just sat there, stone faced and wondered why it wasn’t working.
There are some easy bad choices to point to. Jamie Fox gets to play nerd, but he doesn’t play an engineer as a geek, he plays it as an idiot. His Max Dillon practically drools when showing how awkward he is supposed to be. It is a caricature that makes a simple hero worshiping fan into a simpleton. “Electro” could use some motivation, but the psychological roots of his rage are conveniently skipped over. Harry Osborn is a different matter. The roots of his problems are better explained, and they are set up well. It is the manner in which he steps so quickly into the role of the “Goblin” that feels rushed. Had they left the set up for a third film and waited for this character to appear, I think it could have worked much better. In this situation, it seems like they just wanted a movie of at least two hours so they grafted an additions element to flesh it out. The “Rhino” character and Giamatti’s role are throw away bits which added nothing to the proceedings. If you stick around for the credits, you will get another example of the slap dash nature of the movie. In an attempt to tie in the Marvel Universe, there is an insert that has no context, no connection, and no reason for being there. It raises some interesting questions about cross promotion, but it had nothing to do with what we just spent two and a quarter hours living through. The whole enterprise is a letdown.