TCM Film Festival 10th Anniversary Recap–Day Three

When Worlds Collide

Starting off Saturday morning with a 1950s Science Fiction film just seems appropriate. This George Pal produced extravaganza features many of the disaster tropes from future films like “Armageddon” and “2012”, but the human story is actually more the point. There are a few brief sequences of disaster when the planet orbiting the star that is approaching Earth is near, but most of the drama is in the decisions about who gets to ride in the Ark spaceship and who loves who.

The screening was hosted by Dennis Miller, an avid film fan and the perfect stand in for me. His gee whiz enthusiasm for the movie and his fanboy crush on movie star Barbara Rush, reflected exactly how I would have felt if I were sitting in his seat. They talked about her career quite a bit and she still works. She had kind things to say about Producer George Pal and she seemed to be a fan of the movie as well. Maybe we can get a screening of Robin and the Seven Hoods next year and it can all be about working with the Rat Pack.

The special effects in the film are really quite good and the miniatures and photographic effects are convincing up until the climax of the movie. The survivors arrival on the new planet is a bit rushed and the background art matte looks like a coloring book rendition of another world. It was flat, overly simple and the colors were garish. Before this, the movie looked great and the cinematography was top notch. Actor John Hoyt, who will be familiar to anyone who has watched a TV show from the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s because he was in everything, plays the cartoonish bad guy in a wheelchair. When he gets his comeuppance, everyone was happy.

Fox: An Appreciation

No one seems to want to acknowledge that Twentieth Century Fox exists in name only right now. I suppose, much like the once potent United Artists, the logo and masthead will continue to appear on theatrical releases, but as an independent film studio, Fox is no more. They will be a Disney brand for films that Disney does not want to have the Disney name on. I thought the event would be a bit more bittersweet, but instead, it was a celebration of the restoration efforts of the Fox Archive project, and that was certainly worthwhile.

Our guide for this review of great Fox films was Schawn Belston, who is the Executive Vice President of Media and Library services at Fox. This was a clip presentation with maybe twenty to thirty films getting a few moments of special attention. The opening of the program featured all of the 20th Century Fox logos and the fanfare that have opened their films since the founding of the studio. The first clip also reflected their greatest success, “Star Wars” which did play at the Festival but I skipped to see something else.

From Shirley Temple to Die Hard, a long list of distinguished movies were honored and a little bit of history about their restorations was thrown in as well. I especially appreciated Mr. Belston singling out the amazing score for the original “Planet of the Apes” and naming it’s composer out loud. Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite movie music man and this was a nice little bonus from my perspective.

This presentation was at the newest venue to join the TCM FF, American Legion Post 43.  Now you might think a Legion Hall is just a bar, a hall and some pool tables, but in this case you would be wrong. The main hall has been fitted out to be an elegant theater which would be capable of handling live productions as well as film presentations.

I did not get a shot from the back of the theater but the proscenium is quite large and you can see how cavernous this place is.

This was the only event that we attended at the Legion Post but there were films playing here all weekend. The only real drawback was the hike to the location. It is not actually any further than the Egyptian Theater is from the Roosevelt or the Chinese Theater, but the trip is a little up hill and the grade made it a bit intimidating. That plus the fact that the weekend featured typical warm California Spring days, probably deterred a few souls from attending events here.  I know my blogging friend Kristen Lopez bailed out on Wuthering Heights because of it. She has a chair and moving uphill was not going to be comfortable for her. Maybe nest year there can be a shuttle for those with mobility issues.

Those who did make it to the venue, I hope you went downstairs to use the bathroom. That would have given you a chance to see an old school hospitality room.

All About Nora

This was a panel presentation about writer/director Nora Ephron. She was responsible for some of the biggest adult targeted films of the last couple decades. I already mentioned “When Harry Met Sally”, but she wrote and directed two other famous and worthy romantic comedies, “Sleepless in Seattle’ and “You’ve Got Mail”. She passed in 2012 and the last film she worked on was “Julie & Julia”.

This event took place in Club TCM, the main meeting room in the Roosevelt Hotel. There were a number of items on display that are going up for auction through Bonhams pretty soon, so while I was waiting for the discussion, I browsed but made no purchases.

When the presentation began, it was hosted by one of the rookie hosts on TCM  Dave Karger. He introduced a distinguished panel of Ephron experts. Lauren Shuller Donner, who produced several of Ephrons films, J.J. Sacha who was her personal assistant for 14 years, actress/producer Rita Wilson who was cast in “Sleepless in Seattle” and has a great scene in the movie and Jacob Bernstein, her son and the creator of a documentary on her work.

Karger led the discussion with some appropriate questions and everyone had stories to tell. There was also a Q and A with the audience and some of those questions were worthwhile. There was a very nice touch for the conclusion of the program. Nora Ephron produced her own memorial service and had very strict food and drink guidelines. There was a pink champagne that she specified to be served at her memorial. At the conclusion of this event, everyone in the audience was served a glass of that beverage and we all offered a toast to the missing honoree.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Right off the bat I need to tell you that this was going to be on my schedule from the moment it was announced. I love this movie so much that one of my dogs is named after the outlaw played by Paul Newman. Another reason is that it features a performance by character actor Strother Martin, and as the keeper of the flame on the Strother Martin Film Project, I could not very well miss it. The frosting on the cake however was the appearance of the composer of the Academy Award winning song and score for the film, Mr. Burt Bacharach.

The film holds up marvelously and I can’t imagine I need to tell anyone reading this how entertaining it is. It was the biggest hit of 1969 and probably even better remembered for pairing Paul Newman and Robert Redford than “The Sting”. This was another packed house at the main Chinese Theater.

Bacharach is ninety-one this year and he was a little unsteady but his mind was sharp and his wit was keen. Eddie Muller conducted the interview and of course there was a lot of talk about all of the hits that Burt had written over the years. If you think you don’t know his work, guess again, you have heard dozens of his songs.

At the time the movie was made, he was married to Angie Dickinson, and she was theone who sort have got him the job. They were staying at a hotel in NYC when she ran into George Roy hill and she mentioned that her husband was a composer. The story Bacharach tells then involved sending information back and forth and ultimately getting the gig by chance.

Bacharach also said that his favorite composition was for the theme for “Alfie” another Academy Award Nominated song, again with lyrics by Hal David.

As we watched the movie play out, once again i was caught up in the cleverness of the dialogue and the effectiveness of Paul Newman’s comedic timing. He apparently thought he was miscast in a comedy, but this showed that he was capable in the right vehicle. He and director George Roy Hill would do another comedy in the 1970s, “Slap Shot”. That movie also features a performance by another co-star of “butch and Sundance, Strother Martin.

I was really pleased by the fact that when Strother showed up on screen, there was a smattering of applause for him. We had gotten those bits of audience approval for the stars of the film when they first show up, but leave it to a TCM Film crowd to know that they were seeing one of the great character actors of the second half of the Twentieth century.

Escape From New York

I know there are fans of the channel who will be aghast at the fact that this film is playing at the festival. It is not from the golden age of Hollywood, it is a low budget film and it is a genre that is probably not well loved by some of the TCM fans. Well the hell with all that, I am perfectly happy this was on the program and so were a number of other people. This was a high priority for Amanda and I, we are both big fans of the star and the director of this film, and both of them were going to be at the screening.

This is an mp3 file of the conversation that took place before the movie. I have not included any video because frankly, we were well in the back of the theater and just happy to get in.

The stories were fun and Carpenter pointed out that the only reason that the sequel exists is that Kurt Russel wanted to play the character again. Fans of the film have probably heard the legendary commentary track that came from the Laser Disc release originally and then appeared on DVD versions of the film. John Carpenter and Kurt Russel are friends and they seem to enjoy the heck out of each others company and it showed on that audio track and in this interview as well.

At one point the film was censored because of the presence of the World Trade Center Towers, and Carpenter thought that was a silly thing to have happen for the kind of fantasy film this really is.

We stayed for the film, even though I practically have it memorized and it was getting late. It’s just hard to skip an opportunity to watch it all on the big screen. The cast really is terrific, and it’s interesting that both Kurt and John’s former wives have roles in the movie.  So ended the long Saturday at the Festival. Next up, Last Day.

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John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) 70mm

This is the kind of treat that might keep me from moving out of Southern California in spite of the traffic, social culture and politics. You just don’t get to see “John Carpenter’s The Thing” in 70mm most other places.I’m a fan of the American Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater. While some of my blogging colleagues are dismissive of the programming [one said it’s great if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia four times a year (which I do)], there is a lot of programming that would not be the same in the smaller Aero Theater on the Westside. Tonight’s experience means more because it was shared with a sold out audience, a group of standby folks queuing up in the hopes that there are some cancellations and a sound system that does justice to the film in an audio space made for it.

 

 

The one drawback of the screening was that the film stock is a bit faded. Seeing how this 70mm print is one of the few in existence and that the film is thirty-five years old, that was a small price to pay to see this horror classic. The six track stereo sound more than compensates for the slightly red hue of the print. Listening to Morricone’s haunting electronic score while watching the images of Antarctica swirl by is a definite treat. The sound effects also benefit immensely from the complex sound design combined with the multi-track recording.

There are so many things to appreciate about this film that it is hard to stay focused. I will try to concentrate on three or four elements that always impress me whenever I watch this film. The first “thing” that jumped out at me tonight was how creepy the film is before we even know what is happening. The supposedly mad Norwegians tracking the sled dog across the snow and shooting at it without much effect is just the start of a disturbingly effective canine performance. When the husky reaches the American compound and Clarke scratches him around the neck to reassure him, the dog is sort of cute. Subsequently though we see that the dog is watching everything. It stares out the window at the search party that goes back to the Norwegian installation. It quietly observes the goings on at the American base with a steady eye. As it moves from room to room and encounters a figure that we only see in shadow, it seems to be acting so deliberately and thoughtfully that it can’t be a normal dog. Finally, as the dog is lead into the kennel with the other dogs, it’s approach is awkward and not dog like at all. This is all part of the methodical set up that builds to action rather than having action fill the screen constantly.

Once the dog is introduced to the kennel, the second great “thing” about the film that everyone who loves it talks about gets introduced. This movie is filled with special effects shots and monster creations that are not just on screen. This film was made with practical effects that the actors interact with and . Their presence in each scene feels so much more normal than the CGI creations that are found in the inferior prequel from 2011. The slime covered “thing” that is morphing into the dogs is disgusting to look at but we can’t look away either. The tendrils that penetrate the other animals wave in a manner that was not created in a computer but looks like it is organic as they flip around like so many air hoses without nozzles. When Copper applies the defibrillator to Norris, we get a real shock with blood and sinew and bones being snapped. Rob Bottin and his crew make these effects dramatic, disgusting and at the same time believable. When the legs sprout from the dismembered head of one of the scientists, after that head has used an elongated tongue to pull itself to safety, you might be tempted to say the same words that come out of Palmer’s mouth, except we know Carpenter is not kidding, he wants us to laugh sure but mostly to be horrified, task accomplished.

 

 

Since it is my daughter’s birthday at the end of the month, I gave her the gift I picked out a little early, it is a design from this scene on a great t-shirt provided by a company called Fright Rags. One of my online correspondents works for this company and they have licensed images from this movie that show how the practical effects look so much better, even when they are being rendered artistically.

 

 

One final topic to include in this brief post on what many would consider the greatest horror film of the last half century, the star Kurt Russell. R.J. MacReady is an intemperate iconoclast that somehow manages to be a figure that all the other men at the station look to. Part of  the reason may be that they trust his competence as a pilot, after all he makes two hazardous trips to the Norwegian camp and returns with more information each time. Also, he has a cool demeanor as the crisis gets hotter and he manages to best them all when their paranoia turns on him. Any of those things might inspire confidence in him as a leader, but the biggest asset he has is that he is played by Kurt Russell. Russell is in full badass mode coming off a previous Carpenter film, “Escape From New York” just the previous year. He has a thick mane of hair, much like the king of the jungle, and his machismo is indicated by the awesomeness of his beard. Only a guy with this much charisma can carry off the weathered and bent out of shape sombrero that he wears in the film.

 

There are dozens of other little moments of perfection spread through the film, but I will leave most of them for a more elaborate post, maybe in my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See”. It is a good film that shows how quickly character can be created on screen. There are a half dozen good laughs in the movie that would put some of today’s comedy films to shame. The cast of actors also deserves praise and credit that I simply don’t have time for today.  There is at least one more screening this week at the Egyptian. If you are within a fifty mile radius and don’t go to see this, you will hate yourself later.

Big films on the Big Screen, that’s why I love going to the Egyptian Theater!!!

F8 of the Furious

OK, it’s time to fill your tank, strap yourself in and forget everything you learned in science class. We have another entry in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise to watch.This logic defying, cheesy dialogue spewing, CGI mismash, is what I like to refer to as “Craptacular”. It doesn’t need to make any sense, it just needs to entertain us for a couple hours on a sunny weekend afternoon after we’ve had a nice lunch and we are looking for some air conditioned silliness. “F8 of the Furious” as I insist it should be spelled, has a lot of things going for it despite the cockamamie story telling, paper thin characterization and 1000 yard stare machismo. I don’t anticipate these films like some people do, In fact I was not even sure I would see this one. But when the history of my life is written, I won’t hate myself for having enjoyed these movies a bit. They feel like summer.

From where I sit, the best things about this series are it’s most recent additions. I missed the film where Dwayne Johnson first showed up as a character in these, but he is a guy that oozes charisma. Jason Statham is in his third one of these movies, having a brief cameo in 6 and then being the main bad guy in 7. Whatever they are paying these guys it is worth it because they inject the most energy into the movies of any of the actors. Kurt Russell shows up in a suit and tie for a few scenes, and his swaggering smarminess as a spook with no name, brings a smile to my face. If only Scott Eastwood were as much fun as the intern version of Russell’s character.

Two new additions for this film are the ladies that figure heavily in the plot. Charlize Theron steps in as the villain for this edition of the story. She has tightly weaved hair extensions and a badass attitude. It looks like she was saving all her action chops for “Atomic Blonde” later this summer, because in her role as Cipher, she primarily barks orders and frantically types. In another of the mindless film sequences over the years, cyber hackers attack, block and outwit each other as we see who can really reach 70 words a minute on their laptop. Maybe if we edit it together tightly enough and inject some screen shots of computer graphics, it will feel like an action piece. [No it doesn’t]. After giving us a dozen reasons to hate her and be ready to cheer for the comeuppance that we have been waiting for, there is an unsatisfactory close to her story. In all probability, we will see the same plot twist that has happened in every one of these films happen in the next one. Also stepping in in a brief scene is Dame Helen Mirren. She doesn’t get to do much but she can act everyone else in the film right off the screen just by sitting there.

For thirteen years people have piled on Pierce Brosnon’s last outing as 007, for some of the same reasons that they have embraced this franchise. CGI cars that defy gravity, preposterous super villains with all powerful knowledge, stunts that induce as much laughter as excitement, and jokes that don’t produce either laughter or much character. With the exception of Statham’s sequence on a plane, the humor here largely falls flat. Since I am at heart a sentimentalist, I sometimes find myself being drawn into the “Family” motif that strings these films together. Who doesn’t like a hardy laugh as you celebrate your victory of a new bad guy by breaking bread and forming an alliance with the last bad guy. As I said earlier, it doesn’t make a lot of sense but cracking the whip on a movie like this is a little like kicking a puppy. It ties so hard to please you that it is just wrong to punish it when it drops a turd on your carpet. fate_of_the_furious_ver3

If you think you can take a giant grain of salt and choke it down, than you will almost certainly enjoy a car chase with a submarine, or a parachute jump that would make D.B. Cooper proud. You probably won’t care that a convoluted double cross is arranged without any explanation or that people leaping out of cars traveling well in excess of the speed limit results in no physical consequences. “The Rock” doesn’t need the force to levitate his opponents off the ground, Statham doesn’t need gravity to interfere with a good fight or foot chase, and Vin Diesel doesn’t need to act to star in a movie. All of these things are still more believable than finding enough clear road to chase on in New York City on a weekday afternoon.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Let’s be clear, you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. Your emotional reaction to a previously experienced event will always be influenced by that previous experience. So, inevitably, a second helping is going to go down differently than the first. That said, Volume 2 of this franchise from Marvel Studios, maintains the right tone, humor and high production quality of it’s predecessor, while adding some interesting layers to the story and characters. It is a great follow up which will leave you with another sense of euphoria, but it won’t quite be like your first piece of the pie.

I swore five years ago that I would stop going to these late night preview screenings on Thursdays. After having left the house at six am, worked at my desk for almost three hours, taught for more than four hours, attended a meeting late in the afternoon, drove to another campus, taught two more hours, rushed home, took the dogs to their training class and finally returning home at 9pm, I got up after eating and went to a 10:30 pm screening. With trailers and movie, I did not get to bed until 2 am. I’m not whining, I’m simply explaining that it was a long, complicated day and I’m bushed. Still it was totally worth it and if my prose comes across a little toasty in this review, well, that’s the reason why.

For several years now, I have used an example in my classes about how cultural references from different generations can be misunderstood. For instance, one time in class, as I was passing back grades, one of my students was named Phillip, and when I called his name I joked that I really just need five bucks worth. People who who have only ever pumped their own gas might not get that. Another time, my student got her quiz back and when I called her name, “Brandy” , I said , “you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be”. I got horrified looks from millennials who thought I was hitting on this poor girl and did not get the pop culture reference. After this movie, that will never happen again. As much as this film is a product of today’s Hollywood, the cultural appropriation of late seventies and early eighties pop music and culture is one of it’s strongest points. Hearing the great Kurt Russell, quote the lyrics of a pop song from 1972, as a way of summarizing his characters plot line was just perfect for an old guy like me. Baby Groot should sell a million copies of ELO’s greatest hits, and if you don’t have Fleetwood Mac’s “the Chain” on your music feed, you will.

Our main characters are known quantities at this point. There really are not a lot of surprises when it comes to the way they act and talk. Writer/Director James Gunn and his screenwriting collaborators have a clear understanding of the emotional neediness of Star Lord and match it with cocky bravado at every point. Rocket is a badass for some clearly emotional reasons, but you don’t expect them to be as poignant as this film manages to make them. There are several new characters in the story but the best narrative belongs to two characters from the first film who take a more prominent role in Volume 2. Nebula has daddy issues like everyone in the story, but she is taking them out on Gamora. Their relationship continues to splinter, mesh and then separate again on a regular basis.  The surprise feature character is Michael Rooker’s Yondu. This turns out to be the key reason for this movie working as well as it does to supersede comic spectacle and actually achieve some emotional resonance. Who’d have thought that?

 

Drax continues to be one of the oddest comic relief characters in films. David Bautista’s deliver of deadpan insults and bon mots earns him some acting cred in the range he handles very well.  Zoe Saldana has the narrowest story developments in the film, but Gamora still manages to be an important presence in the story. New character Mantis has the sincerest demeanor in the plot and her by play with Drax is a highlight.

Peter Quill gets to be the hero of the story, but it ends up being a position that is well earned and paid for. The Guardians add a few new enemies to their list of folks they have to watch out for. You can see a few threads of future stories lurking in the background, but the one major story from the previous version is cleanly tied up here. Not having heard of this comic series before it became a film, much less having ever read one comic, the denouement of  the family story was a good twist that made the film a lot more interesting.

 

The special effects of the film are impressive. We went to a 3D IMAX showing and it showcases the space battles and weapons very well. The soundtrack is loaded with music that if you don’t yet know, you will because it is used so well in the story. There are some nice details in the film that you may miss if you don’t watch closely.  For example, I’m pretty sure Peter’s grandpa is in one shot very briefly. It wasn’t necessary but it shows that the film makers care about details and in this Universe, details seem to be pretty important. If you liked the first film, you should be more than satisfied with Vol. 2. And if you like Mary Poppins, you’ll love Yondu the most.

AMC IMAX Bonus Cards for Stubbs Members, Jealous?

Furious 7

I can’t say I am a big fan of these films. I saw the first one when it came out and did not return to the series until the previous film, Furious 6. That film had a convoluted plot, brought back a dead character, and pushed the limits of what is believable in a car chase film. Somewhere along the line the gang of criminals featured in these stories became the good guys and they now are working as intelligence operatives because they pissed off the wrong people. I don’t buy a second of any of it, but watching it was not annoying in any way and if you are willing to give up any sense of realism, recognize that gravity and physics don’t mean anything to making movies any more, than there are worse ways to pass a couple of hours.

Vin Diesel and crew are the continuing attraction. They race cars manically and they take dangerous stunts to the ultimate level. Paul Walker’s death in late 2013 delayed this film as they had to create a way to tell the story with bits of his role that had been filmed and plug in spots where there was no footage to work with. I guess you could spend the time playing “spot the CGI double” but that is too much effort for such a weightless film.

To me, the two best things the movie has going for it are reliable veteran film tough guys, Kurt Russell and Jason Statham. “Handsome Rob” is playing the villain here. He is an unstoppable tornado of violence that kills at the drop of a hat. It looks like in the introduction there is already a body count in the dozens and the movie is just starting. I like Statham as a tough guy and he is appropriately menacing in this, however, he is much like one of the vehicles that gets thrown into the story, indestructible because it would slow things down. His character shows up in places that he has no reasonable ability to be and we never see any planning from this bastardized version of James Bond. The most elite military teams in the world can hit him with a single shot despite the presence of dozens of  high tech weapons. He is a cardboard bad guy made to a boogeyman that is hard to enjoy.

Mr. Russell shows up as a surrogate for Dwayne Johnson’s F.B.I. agent. The Rock’s character is sidelined early on but he did get a nice fight sequence with Statham and he picks up a big machine gun at the end of the movie and does the best impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger ever. Kurt is cool and smarmy and gets involved in only one real action scene and it is the most believable character arc in the story and it is ridiculous. Just having him swagger in and smile is worth whatever they paid him and I would not be surprised to see his character pop up again if the series gets another film, which given the box office seems inevitable.

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In a movie assembled from action pieces, strung together by oversimplified spy tropes, and depending on dialogue written as if it is going to be delivered in a big balloon over the characters head, the cast does what it can to sell the emotional components of the film. There is a nice epilogue with Paul walker that seems to be a fitting goodby to their co-worker. Now it is time to get back to work, crank out another one and make another couple of billion on the shallowest  movie franchise this side of “Scary Movie” parodies. The cheese is laid on thickly, and it goes down quickly and will not upset your stomach too much.