Avengers: Infinity War

This is over a week late and probably unnecessary. It looks like everyone will have seen this movie by the time anyone gets around to reading my comments, but for what it’s worth, I want to be part of the conversation. I spent the last few days trying to catch up on my coverage of the TCM Film Festival, which was also delayed. The reason everything is running late is that I went to a late night screening of “Infinity War” during the Festival and my old butt has been dragging ever since. The advantage of waiting however has been that I got a chance to see it a second time this weekend and there are some more insights I can add as a result.

My impression of the film originally was very positive, but I did not think it would rank near the top of my list of MCU films. The second viewing may change that because it is a better experience than I originally thought. This was a complicated story to put together. There are three or four parallel story lines at any time and each of them involve characters from different MCU films being fitted together. Connecting Iron Man  with Dr. Strange may not be that hard but getting Spider-Man in there and then layering on part of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” is quite an effort. Meanwhile, Thor is in two sequences separate from most of the other cast but he gets connected with the Guardians as well and does end up in Wakanda as part of the story.

The Avengers are split up after the events of “Civil War”, but they still have common enemies that they must face down. This is the story that brings them all together, and frankly, it is not an Avengers film per se. This is the story of Thanos, the mad Titan who has a plan to restore balance to the universe. Criticism of MCU villains extends back to the first Iron Man film. No one will be criticizing this movie for villain characterization or story. This movie does show Thanos as an enemy, but much like Kilmonger in “Black Panther”,  you can understand and even sympathize with  Thanos and his quest. From his perspective, it is not power or rule that he seeks. Those are simply by-products of the task he has set himself. His iron will is to balance the universe and preserve its’ resources and create a paradise. This is also the goal of many environmentalists here on this planet.

While he does have a tendency to lecture and monologue as he carries out his plans, it is done in the context of his story. The Dark Children who follow him and carry out the destruction of civilizations around the galaxy, also have a herald who proclaims their task and laments the sacrifice that those who are destroyed are making. Thanos is a Malthusian on a galactic order. He is Paul Erlich with infinite power. It turns out that Thanos does also have a heart. We may not have expected it, but after this film, his character will be seen less as a monster and rather a tragic force of nature who is willing to break his own heart in order to reach his goal. There are three or four times in the story where another character gives in to him in order to save someone who matters to them. Thanos does not do that when he is faced with the same choice. He makes the sacrifice and we get to see what it does to him.

Josh Brolin may be acting using motion capture and most of the visual element is computer generated, but he still injects the character with facial expressions that are powerful, rueful and ultimately very compelling. He has a great voice and it is used to full effect in this film. Thanos has several scenes with his adopted daughter Gamora, both in the present and the past. It is the success of those scenes that makes his character a tragic villain rather than merely a cartoon evil monster.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor gets the other great meaty part in the film. Having lost so much, Thor finds a way to go on, and his rationalization of how his life story is playing out hives us all a little hope. Interestingly, he is teamed with the most cynical character from the MCU for most of the film. They create an interesting balance between the two of them. When Thor appears at the end of the film, there is hope that Thanos will fail for just a moment. Let’s face it however, if you have control of all the Infinity stones, it is going to take something more clever than brute strength and rage to defeat.

As you probably have been lead to expect, there are a number of deaths of super heroes in the story. Some will come as surprises, others may be expected, but the core group of heroes will be back for part two. I suspect there are a large number of seeming deaths that can be reversed in the world of comic book story telling, but some of these deaths seem definitive. You should know that there will be more before this story is completed.

Despite the generally serious tone of the outcome of each sequence, there are moments of pleasure and humor that you will savor for months to come. Spider-man’s use of pop culture to solve a problem is great. Bucky and Rocket, battling together in Wakanda may be my favorite shot in the film. It makes me laugh just remembering it. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man trading insults and comparing egos with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stange is also entertaining as hell. Drax and Mantis are amusing in most of their scenes and Chris Pratt continues to show why he should be a movie star. He can play light on his feet and deliver an emotional performance in back to back moments. The Hulk is a surprising source of laughs as well. Even though the tone of the film changes frequently, it still feels as balanced as the universe Thanos wants to create.

As a side note to finish this off, one of the great things about living in Southern California and going to a screening in Hollywood, is that the talent some times drops by. Our screening at the Cinerama Dome was introduced by one half of the directing team of the Russo Brothers, Joe Russo. He was joined by MCU mastermind and producer Kevin Feige. Just a bonus.

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Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall of 2013] [Re-Published now in conjunction with the 2018 TCM Film Festival]

I recently spent the weekend with some friends and a guy I know well, and have been friends with for more than thirty five years, had the audacity to suggest that the remake of this film was more entertaining than the original. I instantly dropped my jaw, exclaimed loudly that he had to be kidding and then proceeded to disagree in a condescending manner. I have to apologize for the tone, it was not called for and I would not want my friend to be angry at me because I mocked his preference for the 2009 version. I do want him to know and understand that although I liked the Denzel/Travolta film, it can’t really hold a candle to the original and that vigorous defense of the 1974 classic  begins now as I once more recommend a movie that I want everyone to see.

The nineteen seventies were the last golden age of movie making. There have been plenty of great movies since then, and there have even been periods of time when a film making movement has taken center stage. Yet pound for pound the period of time when the studios were still controlled by film makers and not corporate conglomerates, remains the longest sustained period of film making excellence since the 30s. The mavericks that ran the studios lead by the seat of their pants, and their taste in films. When they succeeded, like Robert Evans did at Paramount, the atmosphere was invigorating. After “Heaven’s Gate” and the fall of United Artists, the movie business changed. Not always in negative ways but it was very different. “The Taking of Pelham 123” is one of those films that represent a gritty view of the world, with cynicism that reflected the time and place and was not simply a joke or a stylistic flourish. It’s not the kind of film that would have appealed to a modern studio as much. Maybe the indie world would be able to put something like this on the screen these days but it would not have had the cache of this version. The remake exists because there is already a story, and a success that the marketers can shoehorn into their philosophy. The remake is a casting gimmick, it worked but only because the groundwork had been laid out by the original.

MatthauThis is a crime film where the crime involves holding hostages for ransom. The conceit is that the location of the kidnapping is a moving target underground. The set up of the movie familiarizes us with a variety of characters, most of whom are working stiffs in the NY Transit System. Walter Matthau, who made his daily bread playing cynical types, is the worn down head of the transit police in charge of one section of the subway system. Lt. Garber, mouths off at his co-workers, dutifully provides a tour to visiting transit dignitaries and generally growls his way through another work day. The re-make casts Denzel as as a dispatcher rather than a cop. OK that might work, except it the remake then  gives him a back story and a plot line that have nothing to do with the main event. The goal is to layer the character and make the plot deeper. In my view it comes off as uncertainty as to how to make the plot as tense as possible. They resort to tricks to build empathy for Garber.  Matthau’s cop version is just doing his job. He is good at it and he struggles with the crisis he is faced with but our rooting interest is in the events not the man. Denzel is given multiple crisis to deal with and his willingness to do the job is undermined by the suspicion around him because of a separate story that is not really the focus of the film.

As a great illustration of the urban grittiness found in the original, take a listen to this terrific main theme that muscles the story onto the screen and tells you this is a film about tough men and dangerous situations, and manages to do so without resorting to theatrics.

I don’t remember the score from the remake, but I do remember the over the top “bad guy” played by John Travolta. Dark glasses, close cropped hair, Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos galore are all trademarks of movie bad guys in the last twenty years. All the gang in the original had fake mustaches but they wore them as a cover not as an attempt to intimidate. Even though there is not any back story or character costuming, the four hijackers in the 1974 film all had distinct personalities and they were easy to remember by their colorful sobriquets.  I am pretty sure this is where Tarantino cribbed the idea for naming his characters in “Reservoir Dogs”.

Robert-Shaw-as-Mr-Blue-600x255The ultimate measure of any story like this is the villain, and while Travolta was scary and played the part as was written, his character is not as interesting or unnerving as Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue. While we ultimately hear a little bit more about his background, the truth is none of it matters because we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless professional. The look in his eye and the demeanor he conveys is all we need to know he is an alpha. Shaw never screams or shouts. Mr. Blue’s cool voice and nearly expressionless face tells every passenger on that train that he is not a man to be f***ed with. The next year after this, Shaw did “Jaws” which was a performance that draws attention to the characters idiosyncrasies.  Except for his intolerance of the psycho Mr. Grey, we see little of his motivation or internal processes. Shaw underplays every scene and the dialogue with Matthau on the radio is deadly earnest. He never compromises. The one time his timetable is adjusted has nothing to do with negotiating but everything to do with the situation, he still is in charge.

The way the hijackers maintain their control of the situation is by following Mr. Blue’s lead. He guns down a hostage in cold blood and he doesn’t accept the improvisation of his reckless ex mafia colleague. When he speaks to the passengers there is no mock sympathy or reassurance. He simply speaks directly and he acts as he has promised to.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick's Dad.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick’s Dad.

The supporting players are a combination of believable types and loathsome stereotypes. Most of the employees of the N.Y. Transit system come off as they are supposed to, harried professionals who view these events from the point of view of a bureaucrat rather than an average citizen. Ben Stiller’s Dad shows up, not cracking wise so much as he is humorously supporting Garber as his partner in the Transit police. Veteran TV character actor Dick O’Neil plays the intolerant train schedule manager who can’t be bothered to worry about dead customers when the trains are getting off schedule. He asks at one point what the customers want for their  lousy 35 cents, to live forever? This is the kind of casual negativity that pushes Garber into one of his few outward displays of frustration.  We get a chance to see the craven actions of political figures as they calculate the costs of paying a ransom. A calculation that has more to do with the next election than saving the lives of the hostages.  We never get to know much about the captives, they are stereotypes; old man, panicked mother, hooker etc. This is not a story of the lives of the victims of this crime or the perpetrators or the cops. The story focuses on the events of the crime.

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The New York subway system seems familiar because we’ve seen it in a hundred movies. Overcrowded, not quite clean, sometimes antiquated and claustrophobic.   The film manages to convey all of that without dwelling on any of it. The darkness surrounding the train car becomes the background for some good tense scenes. One cop even jokes that because of his color he wants everyone to be aware that he is between the SWAT team and the criminals. There is a very morbid sense that everyone in those tunnels is just another rat in a hole and they all have to fend for themselves. While there are nihilistic films out there today, it is hard to see a major studio building a film around that sort of attitude. The characters would have to be sympathetic and the bureaucracy would be the focus of anger rather than the kidnappers. The cops at the surface have many of the same attitudes that we might see fifteen years later in “Die Hard”.  They are ready to shoot first and ask questions later. They are not always competent, witness the car crash that delays delivery of the money, but they don’t play most of this for laughs. The police in authority are not figures to be mocked like Dwayne Robinson, they are also working professionals that are worn from the job but shrug their shoulders and do it anyway. This whole film is very much a blue collar thriller. The bad guys are a team of desperate men not an army of tactically trained experts. The Transit employees are real people in a tough thankless job that have become jaded. The cops are overwhelmed and smart but not brilliant. The only pure comic personae is the Mayor with the flu.

The remake is filled with visual twists and plot developments to astound us. This movie is not filled with fireworks but it manages to hold our attention and be entertaining. The plot scenario might sound farfetched but set in the days of D.B. Cooper and hijacking of planes to Cuba it feels real. The city, the subway the  passengers, the crooks and the cops all come across as real people. This is not a spy adventure or an action film with a hero who overcomes incredible odds. It is an urban thriller that  makes it’s story feel like it could happen and characters that might really exist. The final clue that nails the hijacker that gets away is even more fun now a days when we see so many stories about stupid criminals. Even though the denouncement is played for a laugh, it also feels authentic.

Taking 3

I’m sure most of the readers of this site have probably watched this film a time or two. Fogs gave me a term in a on-line post that I now use regularly. This is a “Black Hole” film. It’s gravitational pull for me is overwhelming, and every time I encounter it I lose another 104 minutes of my life but I gain a 104 minutes of time with story tellers who know what the hell they were doing.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

TCM Film Festival Day Four

After waiting a whole year and salivating over all the choices for a number on months, it is always a little melancholic to arrive at the final day of the Film Festival. Like the end of a Christmas day or most weekends, the conclusion of something you enjoy so much feels a little heavy, like sun-downer syndrome. Still I had a day full of films ahead of me, and since I am a 70s guy, I made the most of the bigger venues and saw three from the last golden age of Hollywood film making.

The Black Stallion

This is one of the most beautiful films you ever saw. The cinematography by Caleb Daschanel is entrancing, both the sections set on a Mediterranean Island and those taking place in middle America in the 1940s. I think the phrase “magic hour” might have been invented to describe much of the work here. Amanda had never seen this film. I bought a copy on DVD for the girls when they were younger but they never got around to watching it before they were off to college, so I guess it is my fault for not forcing it down their throats.

We are suckers for animal stories around here. we have had dogs and cats and snakes and rats and assorted amphibians and rodents as members of the household . We have never however had a horse. I have a cousin who has devoted large parts of her life to horses and after seeing movies like this, you can easily understand how this could happen. “The Black” as he comes to be known, has a magnetic effect on the young boy Alec, who is the star of the movie. Our screening was hosted by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. He noted that Kelly Reno, who played young Alec was basically just a ranh kid who could ride from the time he was very young. He has to carry a lot of the film and it is a very good child performance.

Maltin was joined by co-screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg, who was fresh out of film school at USC when she happened into the gig. Originally she connected with the director as a production assistant just based on a phone call when she heard that Carroll Ballard was going to make a movie of her favorite childhood book. The screenplay was not something the first time director had nailed down and it was still being revised by Melissa Matheson. As the production geared up, Rosenberg worked with Matheson to fashion the story into a screenplay and get so many things right.

The first half of the movie is a magical story of the boy and the horse coming together and saving each other after a maritime disaster. Hoyt Axton plays Alec’s dad, a man who is lucky at cards but maybe not at much else as we see. He played a similar type of character a few years later in “Gremlins”. The shipwright and beach sequences are the most memorable scenes in the film and they just look gorgeous. When the story shifts back to the small town setting for the final half, two new adult characters become part of the story. Terri Garr who is always so welcome is Alec’s  long suffering mother. It’s Mickey Rooney however who comes closest to stealing the film from the horse. As a retired race horse trainer, who is struggling with his farm and separation from the racing life, Rooney comes across as a sincere and interesting mentor to Alec. He was nominated for Supporting actor that year, and that performance probably lead to the Honorary Oscar he deservedly received three years later.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

One of our favorite films of all times was playing in the same Egyptian Theater right after “The Black Stallion”, so we went right out the door for one and got back in line for the next. I did a write up for “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” for a Robert Shaw Film Festival that I did on the web site seven years ago, you can read the original post here. I also wrote about the film for a series I contributed to on the now defunct Fog’s Movie Reviews. I have been slowly re-posting those reviews on this site under my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See”. As soon as this post goes up, I will add the Pelham post to the blog and you can read about it in more depth.

This screening need to be special because we passed up the showing of “The Ten Commandments” hosted by Ben Burt and Craig Barron. Their presentations have been the highlights of each of my previous Film Festival experiences and the Special Effects and Set Design are the best things about the Ten Commandments. I sure hope their presentation ends up on TCM Backlot so I can enjoy it. Anyway, it turns out that we made a good choice because the movie was preceded by a most insightful presentation by Bruce Goldstein, who among other things is the director of Repertory Programming at the New York Film Forum.

Goldstein’s talk was punctuated with historical references to NYC in the 1970s and also an extensive review of the use of the New York subway system as a film location. There were clips from “Death Wish’, “The Incident”, “The Warriors” and even Michael Jackson’s “Bad” which was shot by Martin Scorsese in some of the same spots. The best clip however was the video of former Mayor of NYC Ed Koch, introducing the film at a 1991 Film Forum event. Actor Lee Wallace plays the Mayor of NY in Pelham, and he bears an astonishing resemblance to Koch, who became the mayor much later. People often thought the film Mayor was modeled after Koch but the film preceded Koch’s term by 4 years. Wallace would also play the Mayor of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s “Batman”, almost certainly this time inspired by Koch. Goldstein says that “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is the one film that gets New York Geography absolutely right. We got a little travelogue of the subway system as part of his talk as well.

The soundtrack of this film is terrific and it is a great example of the muscular style of gritty crime films made in the seventies.  In a theater with a good sound system it is like being punched into paying attention to what is happening. So much is great about this movie, I hope you will take the time to visit my post on it.

Hamlet

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. You may love someone else’s work more but no one had the impact on the language and culture that the Bard has had. In the Twentieth Century, there have been plenty of actors who have made their mark as interpreters of the works of William Shakespeare. The boards are littered with English actors who cut their teeth on the plays of Shakespeare. My guess is that most of them would say that Laurence Olivier was the leading Shakespearean of his time. He headed Theatrical companies that specialized in the plays and he made movies out of several of them. The 1948 version of “Hamlet” may leave out a substantial portion of the play, but it gets the most important elements in with enough interest for film audiences to have been awarded the Best Picture Oscar that year and Olivier himself was named Best Actor.

Actor Alan Cummings joined new TCM Host Dave Karger for an exploration of the play and the film. Cummings was polite but did communicate that he had reservations about the interpretation that Olivier had made of the play. He was especially miffed at the prologue that suggested the play was about a man who could not make up his mind. He felt this was a disservice to the true themes of the story. Cummings spoke of his own experiences doing the play in an almost accidental fashion in London.

From my perspective, the film was excellent, showcasing the setting as well as the actors. While Olivier gets credit as the first director to direct himself to an Academy Award for acting, his direction of “Hamlet” includes some great uses of camera and lighting to make the plays ghosts and murderous subplots more intriguing. The film gets the big scenes right and anyone can follow what is going on. The outdoor locations that are used in just a couple of scenes add to the sense that this is not just a stage-bound version of the play.

Before the start of the movie I had a chance to briefly visit with fellow Lamb member Kristen Lopez. She has been another guest on several of the Lambcast Podcasts that I have been on and I was a guest last year on the show “Walt Sent Me” which she and co-host Todd Liebnow  put together. I know she is a big fan of Oscar Isaac and she went to see him doing “Hamlet” last year on Broadway. I suspect he is her favorite Hamlet.

I’ve seen the Kenneth Branagh complete text version of the film, and the Mel Gibson version, which like the 1948 film cuts things down to it’s essentials. I still think Laurence Olivier is definitive, but maybe I will change my mind if Oscar brings his version of the play to the West Coast.

Animal House

The passage of time is not always enough to qualify a film as a classic. There are plenty of films from the 1970s that would never reach that threshold even if another forty years passes. “Animal House” however was a “Classic” from the moment it first screened. This is one of the films that I covered on the original project that started this blog.

I have seen this movie dozens of times and I might well have skipped this to see the 1925 “Phantom of the Opera’ at the Egyptian, but this was closing night, it was playing on the TLC Chinese Imax screen and most of the original cast was going to be there to share some memories. So even though it is a well worn path, we followed it to a great closing night presentation.

This is Amanda’s favorite comedy. I’m sure much of that has to do with her college experience with the Trojan Marching Band. They play the closing song as a theme for their post game performances, and all the band members do the Bluto.

The line up for the presentation included most of the cast. Peter Riegert, Tom Hulce and Kevin Bacon were missing, but everyone else of note was there and director John Landis, co-producer Matty Simmons, lead a lively recount of behind the scenes events. Landis told how the studio wanted Chevy Chase in the film bur Landis was afraid it would become a SNL film and he did not think Chase was right. In his memory, he maneuvered Chase into passing on the film because choosing Foul Play would give him leading man status opposite Goldie Hawn and “Animal House” would mean he was part of an ensemble.

James Widdoes told  a story about the cast getting into a fight with the members of a fraternity at the University of Oregon. The cast had been invited to a party by some of the sorority girls who were hanging around the shoot but the guys in the frat, many of them on the football team, took exception to the actors “crashing” the party. Bruce McGill and Tim Matheson seemed to be getting the bums rush out the door and Widdoes tossed his beer at the frat guys and gave them an “f@#k you”, which as you can imagine did not go over well.

Mark Metcalf, who was the authoritarian Niedermeyer from the rival frat in the film, described how he arrived on set several days after the rest of the cast and was invited over to the table in the cafeteria where they were seated. As he approached them, they started flinging food at him in a manner very similar to the food fight that breaks out in the film.

Everyone had a contribution to make which made the effort to see this film worthwhile. And then of course the movie is hysterical and all the jokes continue to land, forty years later.

Singer Steven Bishop also did a nice a Capella version of the closing song, which many in the audience attempted to join in on. Basically, a splendid time was had by all.

Finish up

A lot of great films over the course of four days. I found this picture on the Festival Web Site and thought you might appreciate where we sat for most of the screenings. This is from the Bullitt Screening. In the Yellow circle you will see me in my burnt orange shirt, Amanda to the right and next to her is our friend Michael. Good Times