The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I’m willing to give him credit for “A Monster Calls” where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That’s too long and I don’t like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson’s character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don’t really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson’s character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn’t think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It’s not important, it’s just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson’s wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn’t require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I’m just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.

Advertisements

TCM BIg Screen Classic: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

So it’s time again to celebrate an anniversary of a classic film. This week it is John Huston”s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and the director’s father Walter Huston. It is a tale of desperation, paranoia, greed and ultimately madness. I’ve probably seen it a dozen times over the years but I don’t think I’ve seen it on the big screen since the seventies. It would most likely have been at a revival theater in those days, but it was presented in a digital format this evening at a local AMC as part of the ongoing programming from TCM and Fathom events.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the film, let me provide a very brief synopsis. Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, an American down on his luck and trapped in Mexico without the funds to get anywhere. He and another American become partners with a third, much older American in a prospecting venture that takes them far into the wilderness. There the search for and discovery of gold tests their mettle and the limits of their morality. The film is a cautionary tale on the subject of greed, but even more so on the issue of trust and character.

Dobbs is never a particularly nice guy but he seems decent enough and he has some reasonable limitations and goals when we first meet him. Curtin, the character played by Holt is similar in circumstances but maybe just slightly less jaded, at least until both of them are betrayed by a man who gives them jobs but refuses to come up with the money he owes them. This plants the seeds of distrust in both of them, but Dobbs seems to be the most vulnerable to suspicion after that incident. The third member of their partnership is Howard, an American who has found and lost riches as a prospector all over the world. After a couple of lucky breaks, they manage to put together a grub stake and travel into the mountains of Mexico in search of gold.

Walter Huston won an Academy Award as Howard, the old prospector with a ton of wisdom concerning both mining and human nature. The difficulty of the project takes its toll on the two younger men, but they struggle along, managing to overcome brief periods of suspicion but building greater and greater pressure as the film goes along. Huston is a joy to watch in his performance. He is wizened and gleeful and disparaging from scene to scene. His performance is memorable, and even though he admits to having some of the same faults as the other two, he is the most sympathetic character in the story.

If there are two characters that define Bogart as a cinema figure, the first would be Rick Blaine from Casablanca, but a close second would be Fred C. Dobbs. Here is a clip from a Bugs Bunny cartoon that first introduced me to this character.

The opening section shows a beaten man, but one who still has a sense of morality about him. Bogart tightens his belt from hunger, licks his lips from thirst and keeps his eyes downcast from shame as he begs for assistance from fellow Americans. Still he is generous enough to share a cigarette with another man down on his luck and to pick up a bigger share of the grub stake when the project starts. We can see in his manner however that he is becoming more paranoid by the minute once fortune smiles down on them. All three have a moment of morality failing when they choose what to do about an interloper on the trail, but they are spared having to live with the consequences by luck. Holt has a moment of weakness when he considers the idea of allowing Dobbs to stay buried in a mine collapse, but ultimately pulls himself out of it. Bogart just can’t get out of those doubts. Two or three times he is shown how wrong he is to be suspicious but he never learns to get over those doubts and he succumbs to a failed moral choice. Huston’s was the stand out performance but Bogart is no slouch. I suspect that the nature of his character prevented as much praise as the performance probably deserved.

The music by Max Steiner is another outstanding feature of the film. And let’s not forget that the movie contains the frequently misquoted lines about badges.  The film is playing two more times in theaters this week. For some reason those screenings are on Tuesday instead of the usual Fathom/TCM Wednesday schedule. So all you old movie weirdos out there, put on your stinking badges, travel back 70 years, and enjoy a classic on the big screen.

The Florida Project [Q & A with Willem DaFoe]

This has been on my radar for a while, it opened back in October at the nearest art house theater, but I was unable to make it over in time to catch it before it went away. Fortunately, with some Oscar buzz and awards season all around us, the lucky opportunities crop up here in the L.A. area on a frequent basis. We got an email from the American Cinematique that they were holding a screening at the Egyptian and that Willem DaFoe would be on hand for a Q and A. Here is where I love technology, I bought tickets within three minutes on line and we were set.

In what feels like a Cinema Verite film, “The Florida Project” follows the life of a child, living on the edge of poverty and being destitute. Moonee is six, it is summertime, and Disneyworld is almost next door. That sounds like heaven for a child but the truth of this story is that dreams are not always as close as we want them to be. Moonee’s Mom is Halley, a women who seems to have no plans or purpose. She seems to be getting by on some sort of assistance and an entrepreneurial use of wholesale perfume that she can purchase at a discount. They live in a budget motel that sits among the commercial pilot fish businesses surrounding the Magic Kingdom.  Far from being a downer however, “The Florida Project” is full of the exuberance of  childhood innocence. Moonee is not a particularly likable kid. Like her mother, she has little respect for those who don’t go her way and she has a mouth to match. That however does not make her bad, but it does show that she needs a lot more attention and a better role model than she is getting.

Actor Willem DaFoe plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel. He is the one professional actor in the cast, everyone else is just getting started or is playing a close version of themselves. They are all very good but DaFoe holds things together in spite of being a somewhat peripheral character to the main events. The ragtag community that seems to have developed in the motels in the area is greatly enhanced by Bobby’s tolerance of the characters, despite his frequently justified exasperation with them.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the film last night was the script. The movie often feels improvised and as a result very realistic. DaFoe was adamant that there was indeed a script and that is largely what was shot, but he also said that the kids were encouraged to “play act” the way they thought the scenes would work. Kids do and say things spontaneously, and a lot of that ends up being kept in the film along with the original actions and dialogue.  It seems obvious that this is especially true of the scenes with the kids. There is no way they could have been memorizing those lines and performing the way they did while still coming off so naturally. Brooklynn Prince is a fireball of a personality and she clearly injects Moonee with personality plus.

The actor did mention that the sequence with the ice machine was developed after the film had been started. It is so subtle, you might not be aware that the second character is supposed to be Bobby’s son. It was a small touch to the film to help establish that the character of Bobby had a background that was not all that different from some of the tenants of the hotel.

Bria Vinaite plays the Mom who clearly loves her child but is not very well prepared to take care of her. She draws out the belligerence of the character while also imbuing her with a sense of love and caring for her daughter. Watching the story, it is likely that you will feel frustrated so often with these two. Moonee can be excused because she is a kid and doesn’t always understand the nature of her own actions. Halley though is an adult and she just can’t seem to put things into a perspective that seems adult like. DaFoe revealed that during some scenes, Director Sean Baker had Vinaite wearing an earpiece and gave her directions when the camera was far back from the scene. Many of the episodes where she is selling perfume to the tourists involved him directing her from across the street.

This movie shows friendships that are built and those that are destroyed and some that just abruptly end because of the circumstances. For the kids, it involves a little heartache and at the end of the movie, Moonee and her recently acquired best friend Jancey appear in a scene that may be real or may be fantasy. Someone directly asked that question of DaFoe last night and like a true artist he shrugged his shoulders and said “you tell me.”

Willem DaFoe is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Supporting Actor Award at this years Oscars, and certainly this was his reason for making the appearance. The show was sold out and while the movie received a warm reaction from the audience, it was the actor who the crowd seemed most responsive to. I’d say a good 80% of the time was spent on “the Florida Project” but several other roles and films were mentioned as well. I was most interested to learn that Wes Anderson’s approach to two of the films he made with the actor were completely different. “The Life Aquatic” was much looser and while not really improvisational, Anderson allowed the actors huge latitudes in how the dialogue and characterless played out. On the other hand, DaFoe described the animatics that Anderson had created for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, including voices and dialogue done by Anderson himself. DaFoe laughed and said it could easily have been released in that form, the attention to detail was so thoroughly planned.

My overall impression of “The Florida Project” is positive with some reservations. It does meander a lot. There are elements that are very sad which sometimes seem to be glossed over. The actions of the Mom and Daughter seem to be real and reflect their point in life, but that does not make them forgivable, only understandable.

In Praise of Physical Media

I am a realist, I am not blind to what I see coming with the technology available now and in the immediate future. I have plenty of students who don’t watch anything on network TV. Most have never seen a Laser Disc, few an LP and soon, the small number who remember VHS will grow to be called “old”.  My daughter went to a sale at a Barnes and Noble that was closing, and she heard an eight year old ask when he saw a tool for opening a CD, “What’s a CD?” The times they are a changing.

At the start of the year, one of the “Old Movie Weirdos” that I follow on twitter and Facebook [both of which are already severely dated from the millennial perspective] shared this little incident at the close of the previous year.

 

Streaming is the present, I’m not sure what the future is, but I know there are things about the past that we are going to miss and it makes me a little sad. The past is not dead just yet however and there were two examples of physical media that came into my life in the last few weeks that I wanted to share and praise.

“Stranger Things” is a TV Series that appears on Netflix, so it is readily stream-able for anyone interested who subscribes to the service. It does seem however that someone out there is a genius at marketing because my daughter got a gift for me at Christmas that is so meta, it should be studied in communication schools around the country. I received Season 1 of Stranger Things as a a Blu Ray set, but it is packaged in the most amazingly appropriate manner imaginable.  The show is set in 1984, at the start of the Home Video Revolution. VHS had defeated Beta as the format for home video and it stood astride the home entertainment market place like a colossus, about to get even bigger. So what could be more retro/meta/perfect than packaging this 2016 product as an eighties piece of merchandise?

 That’s right my friends, it is delivered to you in a VHS style box. Complete with the details that most of us from an older

generation remember from a thousand trips to the video store.  There is a color coded sticker on the cover so that the crew at your video store [well before Blockbuster in 1984] will be able to restock it in the right place. Down on the corner there are some details about the “tape” specifications.

Please notice that your VHS is in hi-fi, so you can hook it up to your audio receiver and listen to it loud. Don’t neglect to examine the details on the back cover for more information but also for a perfect replication of the design of those boxes. Including the FBI warning that was so ubiquitous. Just this alone should justify owning this in physical form. How would you enjoy all the retro references and nostalgia without it. But as they used to say in the infomercials of the day, don’t answer yet , because you also get…

the inside of the VHS box, a container for the DVDs that will make you laugh and cry simultaneously for your long lost youth.

 That’s right, the container box is a cardboard duplicate of a VHS tape, with a window on the tape box and another sticker. This one tells you to “Be Kind, Rewind”. Because returning your tape without rewinding it was rude and often resulted in an extra fee. Now streamers may have access to their material on any device and be able to watch wherever there is an internet connection available to them, but they will miss out on the tangible goodies that often came with old school media. I had Kiss albums that included a Toy Pop Gun, a multi-part puzzle, and most came with some kind of poster as well. The people who put this box together did not forget you.

Located on the inside of the box lid is a pocket containing an “exclusive” Stranger Things mini poster. Available only to those who purchased this Video copy.  I’m sorry, but that is just the kind of catnip that will get a hoarder like me to bite. When the E.T. VHS came out, you could be assured it was “official” if the lifting cover on the tape was gree rather than black. That dumb piece of merchandising probably sold them an extra million copies so that people could keep one pristine.

OK, I know it is marketing that is yanking me in to make this purchase, but it was inexpensive, and worth twice what my daughter paid. (She actually bought one for herself as well.)

The second piece of marketing that makes an old guy like me appreciate physical media is something I have been enamored with for just over a year now. I still have nearly a thousand Laser Discs that I treasure and try to display. If you watch the video at the start of this post, you will see a sort of “Un-Boxing” of the Classic Jaws Laser Disc release. We made that at least six years ago but it shows you how a format that had been dead for more than a decade still held fascination for me. Well last year, Disney did some marketing for Great Britain that is not available here yet. They have “Big Sleeve Editions” of their Bu-Ray/DVD releases, that mimic the old Laser Disc packaging.

The drawback of these products is that the DVD is region coded so that they will not work on most U.S. players, but the Blu Rays work just fine. In addition to the 12″ covers, the jackets have a beautiful interior gatefold to show off additional artwork. There is an exterior sleeve with a mirror front edge to match the front cover, but when you take off the sleeve, the specifications disappear and another nice image is made available. Each disc comes with four special 12″ image inserts that make the package even more special.

Yesterday, after searching ebay and converting dollars into pounds, I obtained a “Big Sleeve Edition” of the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy film.

Look at these images and reveille in the joy of thoughtful marketing for film enthusiasts.

The Back cover without the sleeve.

And now the contents which yield a bounty of fun for obsessive fans and collectors.

 

 

There is a three song vinyl ep with songs from the score and the final credits. Just the kind of bonus to attract people who still think owning something tangible is more pleasurable than visiting something that you don’t really possess.

This is one of the four art inserts and it would be enough by itself to get my blood hot for this sort of product. This is just too much fun, and I can’t understand why we want the future to come and take it all away from us.

Unboxing Video of 007 Box

I suppose it seems a little odd to give yourself a gift at Christmas. In truth, I’d ordered it as soon as I saw it and it just happened to arrive before the holiday. I waited until after the new year to really open it and examine the contents. 007 fans will enjoy, everyone else I hope you will tolerate.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Ishtar

I have been defending this movie for thirty years and I stand by it today. This is exactly what it set out to be, a comedy that is a throw back to the Hope/Crosby road pictures, with a little contemporary humor thrown in. From before it even opened however, “Ishtar” has been the subject of invective, disinformation and derision, usually without having been seen. The fact that the most prominent TV critics of the era, Siskel and Ebert, panned it, probably contributed to the premature grave to which it has been buried for most of the last three decades. Look, I’m not saying it is an essential classic, I am simply arguing that it is an entertaining couple of hours that an open mind can get some enjoyment out of. Humor is subjective, my guess is that a lot of people don’t get “The Three Stooges” and they don’t think it is funny, but millions of others do. This film is the same, and I am challenging you to watch it and figure out which group you fall into.

I will structure my argument that Ishtar has good humorous value in a chronological fashion. The opening of the film features Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as songwriters trying to put together a new song. “Dangerous Business” may not be a good song, but it is a good example of the song writing process. These two bandy back and forth with lyrics and lines that try to move the structure of the song forward. They make several wrong turns and most of them are funny. When the word “herb” gets thrown in, that was funny, but it was even funnier when it got thrown out. We get some other quick instances of their terrible instincts in a series of songwriting attempts during some flashback sequences.

I’m Leaving Some Love in My Will

Chuck Clarke has written a song for an elderly couple celebrating at the restaurant he plays piano at. This is their third year coming back to celebrate an anniversary, and Chuck promised to commemorate their long time marriage with an original composition. It is so accurate but also tone deaf that it defies reason that the songwriter doesn’t get it. Except that he is so sincere and also so confident in his unrecognized talent, he doesn’t even see the horrified faces of the couples family.

Lyle Rodgers is equally as blind to his lack of talent. He is so involved with the song he is working on,  that he doesn’t notice all the customers he is driving by in his ice cream truck. Every kid in the neighborhood wants a drumstick, and all he can think of is “Hot Fudge Love”.

Cherry ripple kisses.

These are two obtuse individuals with the same dream and they happen to find each other. Academy Award nominated actresses Tess Harper and Carol Kane play the romantic partners of the two nitwits, but they are in the movie for all of two minutes. They clearly are aware enough that dumping these two is the only logical course. The fallout from these break-ups is part of the awkward humor in the opening act of the film. Lyle is devastated but it is Chuck, who was commitment phobic who really goes off the deep end. They attempt to bury themselves in work, but the guy who they approach to represent them suggests that they put together a singing act to launch their songs. This is where the second layer of comedy comes in. Chuck has the will but very little talent at performing and Lyle is so shy and introverted that he looks incredibly uncomfortable on stage.  They are also both a little long in the tooth.

The sequences with them trying out their own songs are plenty funny because most of the songs were written by Elaine May, the director and a well known comic mind, along with Paul Williams, one of the most prolific songwriters of the era. I remember reading back in 1987, that Williams was planning a release of the fifty or so songs or parts of songs that he and May had put together for the film. It would have been comedy gold. Of course since the film did not live up to it’s potential, the album never got made.

Interestingly, the characters do actually progress a little bit as entertainers. Of course improvement is a relative term.

The astonished looks on the faces of the audience also mimic the looks on our faces as we are watching this. This is a very self aware presentation and it is supposed to be deliberately awful. It’s why their agent Marty Freed. played by the worn out and down trodden Jack Weston, can only get them a booking in Honduras, where the death squads are active, or in Morocco, which is next to Ishtar, where revolution is blooming in the desert.

After a most humorous interlude [which includes Rabbis and SWAT]on the ledge of Chuck’s apartment building, where the two handle the most embarrassing suicide attempt since Dirty Harry or Lethal Weapon, they choose North Africa.

So far, this movie has sustained it’s tone, created characters that we can laugh at and even sympathize with in spite of their deficiencies, and it has provided us with a justification for the change in scenery. Now the one section that is a bit of a slog, involves the set up of the two musicians with a plot device to put them in over their heads. There is a convoluted story about a map that portends the fall of a kingdom and two messengers from God. While the film skirts the contentious issues in the Middle East concerning Israel, the Palestinians and the Sunni Shiite rift, it does presciently forecast the fanaticism that is sometimes found in this part of the world. Cultures that can produce riots where people die as a result of a cartoon published in another part of the world, or a rumor over mistreatment of a Qua-ran can bring unrest, are on display in the fictional Kingdom of Ishtar.

Hope and Crosby also got mixed in, usually by accident, with some big plot involving a power struggle in the places they visited. So too do Hoffman and Beatty. Chuck, who prefers the nickname “The Hawk” is approached by a mystery woman, posing as a boy, to obtain his passport so she can move freely between Ishtar and Morocco. He falls for the line “The Dome of the Emir’s Palace is made of gold. The people have never seen a refrigerator”.This becomes the insertion point for Isabella Adjani into the story and she serves as the Dorthy Lamour in this updated Road picture.

At almost the same time a fourth character is added to the story, the mild mannered and duplicitous Charles Grodin as Jim Harrison, the local CIA station chief. I can say with confidence, that if you do not find Grodin’s dry delivery and feckless spy craft funny, you will probably not enjoy the rest of the film. Most people however recognize that Grodin is an under appreciated comic treasure.  Adjani is sometimes a protagonist but usually a love interest, Grodin is the real villain of the film and he is hysterical.

The sight of him in a djellaba and fez is pretty damn funny in itself. The notion that other agents might get away with it is even more amusing. There is a good chase scene where the two Americans, who have been labeled dangerous because they might be conflated with the messengers of God foretold in the map, are followed by the CIA, the KGB, the Emir’s Secret police and the revolutionaries trying to recover the map all at once. The costuming provides a large amount of the humor there.

A whole variety of mistaken intentions, cross purposes and back stabbing behavior ensue. The third act of the film builds from the moment that Beatty’s Lyle buys a camel. Well not exactly, here is how he puts it:

Chuck Clarke: You mean you bought a camel?

Lyle Rogers: No, I didn’t really buy it. They SOLD it to me!

Lyle Rogers: Oh no. I think that something went wrong and now I own a blind camel. A blind camel!

The mistaken identity them reaches it’s climax as , after being lost in the desert, Rodgers and Clarke end up impersonating a Berber translator and a tribesman anxious to buy guns. I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy vulture and camel interludes that lead up to this moment. Suffice it to say, the dialogue is loopy, philosophical and matches the tone of the whole film.  

I have read some material that suggests that the film represents the naivete of Americans in the Middle East and that makes it a politically aware and forward thinking film. I’m not going to defend that point of view, I will simply say that all foreign policy is tricky and this film takes advantage of that. There is a pretty good summary of some of the misadventures of American policy  “The enemy of my enemies is my friend.” I’ll leave the politics of the film to someone more motivated to discuss that. I just want to argue that the movie is funny. 

I sat and watched it with my daughter who was born the year after it came out, and she was laughing so hard at some of the camel bits, it echoed down the hall and my wife called down to see what was going on. Like I said earlier, humor is subjective, and maybe because she is my kid she shares some of my perception, but we are not alone in this assessment. Gary Larson, who drew “The Far Side” cartoons, once lampooned “Ishtar with this panel:

Larson later apologized in one of his printed anthologies, stating “When I drew the above cartoon, I had not actually seen Ishtar…. Years later, I saw it on an airplane, & was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it’s not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so.”

There were even critics who offered praise but they were somehow drown out by the negative buzz. I read the Sheila Benson review in the LA Times and I remember thinking she was pretty brave to be swimming against the stream. Almost every review of the time focused on the cost of the picture and not it’s entertainment value. The long knives where out before the movie opened. The dean of the LA Times Critics community, Charles Champlin put it this way, “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait, avid for signs of terminal weakness and early demise.”

Ishtar Blu

Ishtar Blu

Laser Version

Ishtar Laser Disc

The nice thing about films that get a home video release is that they can be reassessed years later by audiences without those preconceptions, as long as they ignore the prior invective.

This coming week, I will be hosting the Lambcast Movie of the Month. I championed “Ishtar” in the voting, and I look forward to doing the same in the discussion. I will pose a link for you when it goes up. I lost the 1987 Draft on the Lamb by a few votes last summer, I suspect my inclusion of this film is part of why that happened. I can’t complain about it, because the words of Rodgers and Clarke already told us this was true…

“Telling the truth can be dangerous business;/ Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.”

Fan Art by Adam Keene