Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ten Statements About....THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982)

Yeah, think you know why she was
cast, but you'd be surprised how good she is...

“Well, I always just thought if you see somebody without a smile, give 'em yours!”

1) We can debate on whether Dolly Parton was an actress or not, but what’s not up for debate after watching this movie is that she was a movie star.  The camera loves her, her personality shines through the film, and she is one of those weird rare birds that seems to have chemistry with anyone she steps into a scene with.  She’s a delight to watch, and every moment she’s on the screen in this film, it’s a little brighter.

2) And here’s the thing about her co-star...yes, Burt Reynolds seems a touch past his sell-by date with his very artificial tan trying to hide his very obvious wrinkles in this film.  But after a few opening scenes of him trying to coast on his charm, Reynolds hunkers down and endeavors to make his Sheriff Ed Earl into an actual character with nuances and emotional problems he has to solve on his own.  And the funny thing is once that kicks in, Reynolds rises to the occasion and becomes genuinely good.

3) Maybe it’s because this was made in 1982, but some of the actual, you know, whores working in the whorehouse seem really...out of place?  There are a number of new wave-y types that seem really out of place when it comes to a story about a southwestern whorehouse with a country/western book.

4) Even though I worried that Theresa Merritt’s Jewel was going to be an embarrassing stereotype when I first saw her, I was pleasantly surprised at how she was developed.  You get the impression that Jewel is not a servant, but a full partner in the Chicken Ranch’s day-to-day, and is a true friend and confidante to Parton’s Mona.  Plus she ends up kicking ass when it comes to the big ‘home invasion’ set piece that ends off Act Two.
"Well, Burt, I thought I'd come into this movie to remind you
of what a broad cartoon character you usually play..."

5) I think that the film benefits from the participation of original writers Larry L. King and Peter Masterson.  While there is a third writer responsible for the script, King and Masterson keeps the story from being overcomplicated in the name of opening it up.   Thus there’s still a sense of true intimacy to the film, that this is still just a tale of a small Texas town under moral siege.

6) Thank the Lord this was made at a time when it was okay to aim for an R rating, because I shudder to think how weird it would have felt without its profanity and mild smuttiness.

7) Okay, there is one performance that really doesn’t quite work, and that’s Dom Deluise’s Melvin.  Deluise makes the caricature too broad, and his gurning and mugging seems out of place in a place where everyone is doing this at a less frantic pitch.  And on top of that, he seems incapable of singing effectively.  He’s a necessary evil (this is the period where if you wanted Burt, you had to take Dom), but his every appearance is jarring.

"Can I sing?  Maybe not.  Am I having fun?  Hell, yeah!"
8) On the other hand, the big surprise is how wonderful Charles Durning’s Governor is.  He only has one extended scene with a musical number, but Boy Howdy does the film just pick up an extra dollop of energy when he’s around.  And while, like Deluise, he can’t necessarily sing, Durning makes it work for him; he talk-sings his number, ‘The Sidestep,’ but does so enthusiastically and unselfconsciously...and the sheer joy he seems to be taking in doing this number is infectious.  His presence is one of the high points of the film.

9)  Look, I know that Parton wrote 'I Will Always Love You’ before Whitney Houston co-opted it, but damn does it still feel weird when, towards the climax, she sings the song to Reynolds toward the end.  Her version is more stripped down and plain, and that makes the sentiment all the stronger.  One can certainly believe Reynolds making the decision he makes after this number.

10) The aforementioned ‘Side Step’ aside, I’m not a big fan of Carol Hall’s book, which seems to be in love with repetition...although I will admit that ‘Hard Candy Christmas’ has been stuck in my brain for the last twenty four hours.  This is probably the show’s legacy song--even though I find it fascinating that it’s become a Christmas song solely for the word ‘Christmas’ in the lyrics, as it’s not a seasonal number whatsoever.

Overall...a very well done musical that keep the feel of the original show and doesn’t seek to ‘open up’ the story with unnecessary complications.  On top of that, it features some rather good performances from actors who we wouldn’t normally think of as good actors (or, in the case of Reynolds, think of as good actors who take lazy choices).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Parting Glance At...Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen was one of the major architects of my fantasy life.

Hell, he was one of the reasons why I became what I am today.

When I was a small child, I remember watching many of Harryhausen’s films when they appeared on The ABC 4:30 Movie, including such gems as Mysterious Island (featuring what is arguably my favorite monster of his--namely the giant crab), First Men In The Moon, and the classic Jason and The Argonaut.  When my parents bought a Super 8 movie projector, I somehow managed to convince them to buy a small black and white reel of monster footage from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  When his second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, moved into the old Crossbay Theater on Woodhaven Boulevard, I pressganged my natural father into taking me; even when he tried to tempt me with the R-Rated forbidden fruit of The Longest Yard that was playing on the other screen, I stayed my course.  One of the first films I saw on my own was the third Harryhausen Sinbad film, Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.  As I became interested in maybe making movies of my own--an interest that waned when I realized I was a better storyteller than director--I tried to make my own stop-motion epic in emulation of Harryhausen’s style.  In particular, there was a decidedly overambitious version of King Kong that never quite worked out.  Many of my earliest stories I wrote as a child featured monsters inspired just as much by Harryhausen’s Cyclops and Talos as by Godzilla.  Seeing this man’s work come alive helped shape my decision to write about the fantastic and the heroic, and there’s at least two stories in the book I’m finishing up right now that feature creatures that could easily have been brought to life by Dynamation back in the 60‘s.

The thing that strikes me about Harryhausen is how he spent the bulk of his life just doing what he loved.  According to all reports, he would wake up every morning, have breakfast with his wife, then head next door to the house of his partner Charles Schneer.  Then the two men would spend the day planning out movies, talking about movies, making deals to make movies, and otherwise making up new projects for them to do together.  When a project was placed with a studio, Harryhausen then retreated to his studio in his garage and began building and animating his creations.  A day when Harryhausen produced fifteen seconds of usable footage was deemed a success, but it didn’t matter.  He was having fun, and that was all that mattered.

While I always regretted his decision to retire after the release of the original Clash of The Titans, I respected him for doing so.  He claimed in interviews that he recognized his time had passed after that, and it’s hard to argue against that; shorn of the patina of nostalgia, Clash did feature some of his lesser work.  And it wasn’t like retirement meant Harryhausen hid himself in a cave for the rest of his life.  He was famous for devoting his time to speaking at colleges and sharing his knowledge with aspiring animators, and was always gracious with his fans and admirers.

Ray Harryhausen’s mortal clay may have ceased to exist yesterday, but much like his lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, who died before him, I like to think that his spirit will never die.  Every time a father shares a Sinbad movie with his son, every time a burgeoning special effects artist realizes the charms inherent in stop motion, every time a revival house decides to run The Valley of Gwangi or 1,000,000 Years BC, the spark that motivated him to spend all those hours in his garage will burn all the more brightly.  And I think that the fact that he will inspire and enlighten people for decades is something to be celebrated.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ten Statements About....IRON MAN 3 (2013)

There's narcissism, and then there's this...

“My suit was never a distraction or a hobby. It was a cocoon. And I'm a new man now."

1) Even though the bulk of the plot is taken from Warren Ellis’ ‘Extremis’ story and we get a couple of head nods to John Byrne’s Telepresence Armor, there is no doubt that Shane Black is channeling David Michiliene and Bob Layton’s landmark runs on the book.  So many elements from the story are from that run, even if some of them are tweaked a bit.  In fact, the whole film has the feel of those issues where Michiliene and Layton concentrated on how cool and resourceful Tony Stark is by depriving him of his armor for long lengths of time.   Hell, there’s even a shout out to Mrs. Arborgast in one scene!

(Although I am surprised that the list of comic creator thank yous didn’t include Len Kaminski, who created not only War Machine, but the Hulkbuster armor.)

2) Boy does this film move.  Unlike with its predecessor, Black makes sure that even the slow moments feed directly into the plot, keeping everything clicking along.  This creates a smoother viewing experience and avoids the clunky start-and-stop feeling that Iron Man 2‘s second act had.

3) I’ve said it when Iron Man 2 rolled around, and I’ll say it here--Don Cheadle was 100% an upgrade over Terrence Howard.  Not only do the two feel like friends throughout (the scene of them hanging out in the first act has a casualness that Rhodey and Tony never had in the first film), but Cheadle is absolutely bad-ass when the third act rolls around, coming off as a hyper-cool Felix Leiter to Tony’s Bond.

4) The reworking of The Mandarin--arguably the furthest away any element from the comic gets in this film--actually makes a lot of sense, even if that reworking ends up being played for laughs at one point.  Ben Kingsley manages to make both aspects of the character make a lil’ sense...although I will admit I find it hard to accept that the character is as oblivious as he is portrayed at one point.
"Who said I wasn't hot?"

5) Another character who seems to have two (if not more) aspects is Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian.  Pearce manages to disappear into the role to the point where I didn’t recognize him throughout (although, to be fair, it’s not like Pearce has been in much of anything in the last handful of years), and I find it amusing that he acts more like Justin Hammer than Justin Hammer did in the last film; the scheme he’s enacting is extremely in keeping with Michiliene’s version of Hammer in the 90's.

6) I respect how Black manages to shear away a lot of the ‘Phase Two’ excess (save for the end-credit stinger) so he can concentrate on the core group of Tony, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy.

Yes, Happy.  Maybe because he’s no longer directing, Jon Favreau gets a real sorta story arc, and for the first time we feel that he’s more than just an employee, but a friend.

7) ...and speaking of the core, is Gwyneth Paltrow hot in this film.  Freed up from the weird bickering-for-bickering’s-sake of the last film, Paltrow is able to build on the chemistry with Downey, making their relationship feel truly real.  It’s also refreshing that Tony and Pepper actually talk about significant things, and not stuff like whether she’s allergic to strawberries or not.  Granted, there’s that weird thing they do to her that is sort of swept under the rug in the coda, but the bulk of her appearance in the film bolsters the relationship between the two of them.

8) Since I raised the subject of humor, I’m pleased that the humor in this film is organic, coming from the characters and what we’ve learned about them.  Black allows Tony to be a lil’ bit of a dick--sometimes really extremely when it comes to his interaction with the young boy who’s his sorta sidekick in a major part of the second act--without letting him get Joe Quesada level out of hand.  And he also has fun with Stark’s celebrity status.  But these jokes are natural, and never get to the forced level of the previous film.
If you were a fan of David Michiliene''d know why
I mark out at shots like this....

9)  I appreciate the fact that Black does give Tony’s story arc, an arc that’s been building since the first film, a satisfactory resolution.  If it turns out that this is the last Iron Man solo film, or the last solo film to feature Downey in the lead role, at least there’s a sense of closure to the trilogy.

10) I enjoy how Black finds many ways to create action sequences with Stark where he has limited access to the suit.  All of these fight scenes are creative, and leads up to the whizz-bang finale which evokes a major part of the Michiliene/Layton run and provides us with a massive adreneline rush of fun in the end.

Overall...while I did enjoy Iron Man 2, this is an improvement.  Shane Black manages to create a successful film that builds on th previous entries while giving us somthing new in the spectacle department.  Recommended.

I ended up going to the Atlas for an 11 a.m. show that was, well, packed to the gills.  Among the eight trailers we were assailed with were ones for The Great Gatsby (which I truly do want to see, and not just because there’s Carey ‘Sally Sparrow’ Mulligan in flapper gear), Man of Steel (which encourages me in that it seems that Zack Snyder is playing Superman as a bright light in a dark world), After Earth (where I’m positive M. Night Shamalyan is going to pull the same trick with Will Smith he pulled with Bruce Willis), Star Trek: Into Darkness (I don't care if Benedict Cumberbach is the bad guy; fuck you, J.J. Abrams) and Catching Fire (which is obviously not for me, but I am so grateful that this teen series has more to say beyond ‘hey, it’s important to have a boyfriend, even if he’s dead’).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ten Statements About....GET CARTER (1971)

Michael Caine' gone a'hunting.  Better run and hide.

“You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow."

1) Anybody who thinks of Michael Caine as a soft actor who plays variations of himself needs to see this performance.  Rarely smiling, struggling to control a seething rage within, Caine is a veritable Angel of Death come a’calling.  His ice cold performance holds the film together by sheer force of will.

2) Looking at it now, there’s a strange sadness in the interactions between Caine and Ian Hendry’s Eric.  Seeing both men, who were in the throes of alcoholism at the time, and knowing that Hendry’s life was close to ending because of it makes their scenes feel different than director Mike Hodge intended.

3) Even though she’s not the best of the handful of women in the film (none of which really has enough screen time to justify being called the female lead), Britt Eklund’s Anna does take the thankless job of being the sexual plaything/’fiance’ of Caine’s Carter and makes the best of it.  Her performance, along with the one she gives in The Wicker Man, does add to my suspicion that there was a genuine actress buried in that sex symbol wrapping of hers.

4) If I had to choose a favorite of the number women Carter has his way with, I’d have to go with Dorothy White’s Margaret.  Maybe because she’s a ginger, maybe it’s because of her pronounced accent, maybe it’s because of that one scene in the car where she couches Carter’s situation in fairy tale language (‘You’re going to meet the Demon Lord’), but she’s wickedly cool, eminently watchable and sexy as all Hell.  And because of how Hodges presents her to us, her final fate--something that throws Carter’s behavior towards her in the later second act in question--is truly shocking.
Michael Caine is naked, and he still is going to kick
your lilly white ass!

5) Hodges’ directorial style is very distinctive, particularly when it comes to action scenes.  Frequently, he will cut to an overhead long shot so we can see different planes of action.  It’s an interesting choice which distances us from what’s going on in the shot while also giving us a great deal of comprehension as to what is happening.  In the day of getting too close when it comes to fight scenes in an effort to ‘get the viewer into the action,’ this method actually makes the action much more comprehensible.

6) ...although it should be mentioned how violence, when it comes, does so shockingly and very, very suddenly.  Even though Hodges doesn’t engage in smash cuts and other tricks that are used in modern filmmaking, the sudden changes narratively from the slow, deliberate pace of most of the story and the abrupt way the violence intrudes upon it--as if the brutality invades the film from the movie playing on the screen next door--unhinges the viewer and disorients them.

7) This is yet another film I don’t think could have been made today (although it does make me curious as to how botched the Sylvester Stallone, Seattle-set version was).  Beyond a certain point, particularly when we are introduced to the concept of ‘L’--it’s hard to call him an actual character--there is a sense of inevitability to Carter’s journey and where it will end up.  And even though we sort of understand what Carter’s fate ultimately be, it still ends up as a shock when it happens.
Michaek Caine is so hardcore he gets Britt Ecklund off with
phonesex...before phonesex was even invented!

8) There is one wordless scene where we learn why Carter’s brother had to die that is magnificent.  Primarily focused on Caine sitting on a bed, it’s a magnificent moment because he retains that weird stoicism, his facial expression never changing--and yet we can feel the white hot rage building up in Carter.

9) The cinematography here is interested, especially in the way everything seems designed to make Carter look separate from everyone else in Newcastle proper.  The simple choice of giving Carter a black trenchcoat that makes him pop out from the amongst the uniformly grey and drab background works.  It emphasizes that Carter has become something apart from the city he grew up in and at certain key action moments he comes off as the Angel of Death stalking these grimy little streets.
Michael Caine just caught you looking at him funny...RUN!

10) Hodges really seems to love these sequences where he transposes the main action with something else.  Most of them are the expected ‘here’s the normal life, and here’s the shit Carter’s knee deep in,’ but there’s this one moment where he intercuts between Carter being ridden towards a meeting and the sex he’s going to have with the driver later that’s really striking and peculiar.  It’s the sort of playing with time and space that future directors like Tarantino and Soderberg will embrace that I wish would happen more often.

Overall...a brutal and brilliant crime film that’s as dark as the soul of its protaganist, and evidence that Michael Caine was, and always will be, hardcore.