The Right Stuff with Phillip Kaufman

For Veteran’s Day we celebrated by attending a special screening of “The Right Stuff” , sponsored by American Legion Post 43 and the American Cinemateque. Before the show however, we took advamtage of an opportunity to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum, across the street. The event planners arranged for a two hour window for guests to stop by this intimate little piece of history after regular hours.

The Barn, as it is referred to , contains materials from the earliest Hollywood studio, founded by some of the giants of the industry including Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille.

If you are a film fan, it is a great place to stop for an hour or so, which is about as much time as we stayed before moving on over to the American Legion post.

Amanda and I had been in the theater at the Legion Hall back during the TCMFF in April. The building is a fascinating structure that dates back decades and has intimate spaces in the basement as well as the beautiful theater on the main floor. I’d noticed on my check in on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends was also in attendance. Lawrence Kaplowitz is a gentleman I follow on Facebook, I joined a TCM fan page and he posts there regularly. I located him and his new bride a few rows in front of us and I went up and introduced myself in real life. We chatted for a few minutes and it was nice to speak with another film fan in Southern California who has some of the same interests as I.

In addition to all that I have described, and the movie were were about to see, the event was special because it was being introduced by the writer/director of the movie Phillip Kaufman himself. Author and Legionaire Alan Rode, interviewed Mr. Kaufman about the film for nearly forty minutes. We heard about the casting process and the relationship he developed with Chuck Yeager. The clever use of traditional old school special effects techniques to simulate the aircraft and launches was interesting. He also briefly touched on the prior script by William Goldman and discussed why he felt it was necessary to change it. Ultimately he wanted that first hour to be about the test pilots that made having “the right stuff” so important, especially Yeager.

Kaufman did say actress Veronica Cartwright was in attendance last night but I did not get an opportunity to see her. All of the actors got a round of applause as their names came up in the credits. This was a 35mm presentation and it looked and sounded great.

If you want to read an LA Times article on this event, I have linked it for you here.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-09/the-right-stuff-blasts-off-for-a-veterans-day-screening-in-hollywood

The Film

“The Right Stuff” is one of two films from the 1980s [the second being Amadeus] that I would include on my top ten list of all time. It was in fact my wife’s favorite movie and I did have a few moments of wistful nostalgia as it played out. She spent her first few years as a child in the high desert area. Her brother worked at Edwards Air Force base and the China Lake Weapons Station. We visited the museum there, where you can see the original X-1.
The story of the launch of the space program is of interest to all but especially to we baby boomers who lived through that time. We knew the astronauts and watched the launches and followed the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs closely. The film manages to make each of the original seven astronauts interesting, although in the big picture of the film Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter  end up in the background. Shepard, Glenn, Grissom and Cooper are the main pillars of the story. I think the standout performance is Fred Ward as the gruff and unfairly judged Gus Grissom. My colleague on the Lambcast does not like Dennis Quaid but I find him perfectly cast here and he provides much of the humor that makes this film so memorable and real.
Bill Conti’s score is triumphant and patriotic and exactly right for the tone the film is pursuing. There is effective use of source music as well and this was my introduction to Holst’s “The Planets”.

I wrote about this film for my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See” and I urge you to visit that post to get a more complete discussion of the film.

 

The Irishman

Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of “Roma” based on the premise that it is not “cinema”. This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike “Roma” however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or “films” made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.

Last night’s screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.

“Mean Streets” was low level street gangsters, “Goodfellas” was gangsters on drugs, “Casino” was gangsters and gambling, “The Departed” was gangsters with police corruption, “Gangs of New York” was historical gangsters and “The Irishman” is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for “GoodFellas” and “Casino” is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in “Goodfellas” was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in “Casino” there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. “The Irishman” does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.

Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing.  Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to.   Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable.  The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.

The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro’s on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran’s family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can’t really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it’s only enough to make Pacino’s character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.

Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don’t think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.

In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, “that was a milestone” in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before.

 

Jo Jo Rabbit

This may be on two distinct sets of lists at the end of the year. Some folks are going to find that it is a misfire that fails to manage the complex shift in tone that occurs on a regular basis in the story. Others will be beguiled by the delicate balancing act between the sweet and the bitter. It took me to the last couple of shots to decide which group I am going to fall into. Count me enchanted.

The lead character, Jo Jo is a ten year old boy who is a microcosm of Germany under Hitler. He seems to be hypnotized by the promise of the Fuhrer and the propaganda machine that engulfs the whole country. Little boys and nations can become obsessed with symbolism, and the swastika, uniforms and military pomp all sucker the crowds in. Taika Waititi has punctured these concepts with obvious asides about the stupidity of some of the things the boy and the country are buying into. That humor is often outlandish and it does provoke a big laugh on numerous occasions.  The dangerous high wire act he is performing exists because that humor is often juxtaposed with a horrifying reality. Even though those moments of tragedy are presented in non-graphic ways, it is a sudden jolt to the left that might upset the balance of the story at any time.

By making the lead a ten year old, the whole metaphor can be looked at as a loss of innocence on the one hand, but it is also a rude awakening at the same time. Since Jo Jo gets a Rabbit to interact with and he is designated as a rabbit by some of the other characters, I guess it is fair to classify this story as a fable. In many ways it has the same sort of fairy tale essence to it that “Life is Beautiful” had. The harsh realities of the world are being covered up by a childish view of the events surrounding our lead. That his imaginary friend is Hitler himself makes the story feel completely absurd. Sure we laugh at the amusing image of Hitler jumping out a window or sitting down to a meal of unicorn, but each moment is building toward the shakeup that will be so heartbreaking at the climax of the film. Sam Rockwell acquits himself with the usual high caliber comic performance he has been noted for, but he gets to pay off some actual sentiment in the end. Rebel Wilson is merely a cartoon in the movie, but it is a funny cartoon that we will never have to take seriously.

Straddling the gap between sweet fantasy and morbid reality is Scarlett Johansson as Jo Jo’s mother.  She is an indulgent mother who vaguely disapproves of her son’s embrace of Nazism, but she is also an enigma, one that presents us with a reality far from the domestic bliss she is trying to project. Waititi himself plays Hitler, and at times he is cloyingly obtuse and at other moments we here the rhetorical weapons he used to seduce a whole nation being wielded against a child. If you hold your neck to straight in the curves, you may break it. The trick is to lean into the humor but try to ease back from it before the next breakneck switch in tone. I was able to do this more effectively as the film went on and I got used to the sort of whiplash inducing moments writer/director/star Waititi had in store for us. I can easily imagine though that some people will find it annoying.

Roman Griffin Davis makes his debut as the title character and the performance is essential for the movie to work. He has to be a kid who is both incredibly sure of his grounds while simultaneously doubting the foundation he is standing on. He hits those notes especially well with his interactions with costar Thomasin McKenzie. She plays a belligerent and sarcastic version of an Anne Frank character, and she must be stern but frightened at the same time. That the director got these performances from his cast is what allows us to go along with the story. Ultimately, it is a hopeful interpretation of the minds of the German population under the Nazis. If would be easy to dismiss it as a tasteless concoction that never quite gels, but I think in the last few minutes, it firms up into one of the best films of the year.

The Lighthouse

If you were to take “Brokeback Mountain” and cross it with “The Shining” and add a little Herman Melville to the mix, you might get what this picture attempts to be. It is sort of a sea shanty about madness from isolation. Now sprinkle in a little tentacle sex and you start to get a clearer picture. What I have given you here is a far more coherent description of the film than you will get from watching it for 109 minutes. This pretentious piece of dreck has little to offer and everything to frustrate.

I will be honest, I was not a fan of the much admired first film from writer director Robert Eggers. “The VVitch” was slow, ponderous and the end of the film undermined what the movie seemed to be trying to accomplish. I don’t know what this movie was trying to do, but I can tell you what it did for me, it pissed me off. Both of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe, dive in whole-heartedly to the proceedings, with Dafoe  hamming up the arcane dialect in a manner worthy of a pirate movie. Half of the dialogue will get lost in the style of delivery, but it won’t matter because there is no consistent voice to what you are seeing anyway. Oh, and by the way, you won’t be seeing nearly as much as you should. Eggers has decided to shoot this film in black and white, mainly at night, in a location with one source of illumination that can’t be turned into the camera.

At one point one of the characters suggests that the whole experience was just in the head of the other character. That would have been an indicator of where we might go, except that a dozen other things happen which suggest that the two characters might even be the same person. Which doesn’t make any sense even in a horror film, which this may or may not be classified as. I had no idea what the story was about, all I knew was that the two actors are in a lighthouse. After watching the damn thing, that’s still app I really know. The camera pans up slowly, then it holds on something for a while, then it pulls back, and then there is a close up, none of which contributes to suspense, terror or drama. There were some people laughing, so maybe it is supposed to be a comedy, but it did not strike me as funny at all.

It looks like I will be an outlier on this, there are great ratings on many of the mega sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I will try to listen to some of my fellow bloggers and podcasters as they talk about this, but if you hear a foghorn in the background it may simply be me calling “bullll…shiiit.” If I see Mr. Eggers name on future projects, I will be sure to let those who appreciate his torpid style and incoherent narratives enjoy themselves. I’ll be looking for something human beings might like.

Zombieland Double Tap

The original Zombieland was a joy 10 years ago. It came out a year before I started keeping this blog so I never included it in any rankings or evaluations, but it certainly would have been on a list of my favorite films from 2009. I was pleased with the idea of a sequel, but the notionthat it would take ten years to get here never crossed my mind. As it is, the timing seems just right. The way the story develops, there is some character justification for actions, ten years into the zombie apocalypse.

I said I would keep today’s entires short, and that’s easy to do with this film. It has the same sensibility Director Ruben Fleiser had a big success with last year’s “Venon”, a film I never felt a strong need to see. This on the other hand is right up my alley and if you liked the first Zombieland, than D”DoubleTap” is for you. It has the off kilter humor, the action pacing of the first film, and some reasonable reasons for existing. There are a few new wrinkles and Woody Harrelson gets to vent against the kind of person he probably is in real life.

If you are an Elvis fan, there are things which you will enjoy. There is some non-partisan political humor, and best of all, there is a surprise sequence at the end which people who get out of their seats and race out the door will miss, and they will hate themselves for that. This movie completely fulfilled my hopes and expectations. It should be on repeat play at the house in the not too distant future.

Judy

I am potentially doing four posts today so I plan on keeping each of them brief. I will be gone for a week or so and I want these to be fresh for anyone who is interested.

Biopics can be hit or miss. The personality of the subject may be the biggest factor in their success, but you should never underestimate the importance of casting and performance. J.Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney did not get a proper treatment, one because of miscasting and the other due to the script. I’ve seen some criticism of this movie as being uninspiring, but I think it works the way a lot of these biopics do, by focusing on a particular point in the subject’s life. Darkest Hour and Lincoln both did that and succeed, I think for the most part Judy accomplishes it’s task in the same way.

The film focus is on the period of time she was performing in London, less than half a year away from her death. There are a few flashback sequences, but the main story is set near the end of her life.  I made a comparison that might seem a bit strange when I was talking about this film, it reminded me of “Joker”. The subject is the emotional and mental breakdown of of our subject. The childhood abuses in both stories are mentioned, but the real tragedy is the self destructive behavior that each is unable to extract themselves from. The audience will be frustrated by the wrong turn that the character makes and that is where we will feel the most emotional connection to the film.

Renée Zellweger is well cast with the kwepie doll face and diminutive stature. She nails Garlands voice and as far as I could tell, many of her mannerisms. The vocal performances are also very impressive. She is not recreating the original versions of the songs, but how those songs might have sounded at this stage of Garland’s life and her physical stamina. I think come awards time her name will be prominently featured. I hope along that of her costar here Jessie Buckley, who turned in my favorite performance this year in “Wild Rose“. That the two of them appear in this movie together is kind of a treat.

There may be things in the film that are not historically accurate but the movie feels emotionally accurate. The main performance is enough to recommend it but I think there is more than just the performance, it is a well crafted story of talent and self destruction. Probably a well worn path at this point in pop culture.