Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bad projection and good ol' Roger Ebert

I went to the movies the other night with my friend Tim O'Donnell. We attended one of Atlanta's premier movie venues, The Tara (now run by Regal Cinemas). Great theater, the Tara--always has been. But even they have their woeful moments.

There are four houses at the Tara. The two over to the right of the ticket taker are the bomb. The first one to that side is a gigantic, many-rowed but somewhat thinly-sliced house that always shows the best of the best. The throw range for the projection is incredibly long, but always bright (though the projectionists sometimes get the horizontal framing incorrect; I can still remember seeing Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear there with Saul and Elaine Bass' opening credits falling off into the black masking around the screen; the management told me "it was made that way" which is bullshit, considering it's Saul freakin' Bass).

The second right-hand house (pictured at the bottom of this post) is the finest of the bunch; it's wide-berthed, and its dimensions are just right to insure, almost always, a crisp and accurate projection that's comfy to watch. This said, when I was working at the Tara back in the early 90s, that very house was projecting the 50th anniversary re-release of Casablanca all wrong; they had no idea what a 1:33 projection lens was, and were instead showing the film in the present-day standard 1:85. This was anathema for a film that was composed with a 1:33--or essentially square--format to be converted to 1:85's slight rectangle. This meant that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman's faces were being cut off at their exquisite chins and foreheads. With Bogart's lower lip falling off frame when he spoke in close-up, this situation made Casablanca look badly directed to a new viewer, and we all know that director Michael Curtiz was on his game in an radical fashion there! It ain't Curtiz's fault, it's the projectionist's, and the theater's. But damned if I could convey that to them, even as an employee.

The third and fourth houses at the Tara, over to the left of the ticket taker (the third house is pictured above), are somewhat of a hastily-built, wholesale disaster. Their dimensions are bizarre. The seats, even in the middle of the houses, are too close to a screen that's too high up on the wall for neck comfort; it's a very claustrophobic film venue. Even when I was working at the Tara, I regarded those houses as a place where lower-performing films were dumped (they were built as add-ons to the theater in 1983; the building itself, which is spectacular and now has a slightly overstuffed lobby, was built in the early 60s as a single, and twinned in 1975). So I groaned in disappointment when Tim and I discovered that the movie we just paid 12 bucks to see, Tom McCarthy's amiable comedy Win Win, was playing there.

I still ended up liking McCarthy's movie (it's difficult not to like, but slightly difficult to absolutely love). But, while watching it, not only did the rush of memories about why I abhorred the house's layout smack me in the forehead, Tim and I also had to deal with the piss-poor light coming from the projector. Win Win is a movie that'll probably work better on the small screen, but that doesn't mean paying customers at the theaters should be subjected to a screening that looks like abject mud. It was obvious that the Xenon bulb used to throw the projection onto the screen was either (a) giving out completely or (b) being dialed down to extend the life of the bulb. This made the colors in this modest film look that much MORE modest. In fact, they looked downright drab. I thought to myself "I'm sure when I watch this on DVD, it'll be a revelation." And we're not talking about a movie that trades on its look very much.

The same night, Tim and I decided to pay another 12 bucks to see a 2D version of Werner Herzog's new 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. We debated, at the ticket booth, whether to see this movie in 2D or wait until it was exhibited in 3D at another theater later on. Even though I had heard from Roger Ebert that it was a film that used 3D uncommonly well, I decided that seeing it in 2D was the wiser choice. When we see, these days, movies in 3D, the brightness of the screen is reduced by at least a quarter. And I didn't want to see a movie filmed in an ancient French cave with 1/4th less projection light.

It turns out that it was the correct choice. Cave of Forgotten Dreams looked great and, while I wanted to see Herzog's first foray into 3D, I'm happy I made the choice that I did. The movie is more important than that beside-the-point effect. Yet I couldn't help but wonder: what IF the 3D looked great? What IF Herzog was the first director to use the format to perfection? What had my distrust of 3D projection cheated me out of here?

Often, when I'm in the movie theater and something is wrong with the projection, I'm the only one who complains. It could be something as seemingly miniscule as the framing (a common thing so-called professional projectionists get wrong), something as wholly crucial as focus (I've had flat-out arguments with managers over whether or not a movie is in focus), something as esoteric as projection lens choices (as with the Casablanca case), or something as obvious as whether a film has broken. I've often found that, in these cases, I'm the only one willing to get up and tell the management that there's a problem; this blows my mind. At the Lincoln Center 13 in NYC, I was the first and only person to get up out of their seats to notify the management when the newly-released print of The King's Speech broke two reels--that is, 40 minutes--in.

I think when people pay to go see movies, they rightfully expect (given the high price) that they are to get what they pay for. But this is not necessarily the case all the time. Maybe in big cities like New York and L.A. they can expect this (and maybe not even then---depends on the theater, and how much its staff cares). But in the rest of the country, it takes people who give a shit to stand up for those who don't know enough to give a shit. These people may exit the movie--which may be great--not liking it so much, but not being able to put their finger on WHY they disliked it. Imagine watching Casablanca for the first time, expecting a masterpiece, and then being subtly irritated by the faults I've underlined. It's not that the movie is bad; it's the PROJECTION that sucks. This is a hairsplitting matter for most filmgoers, but not for film geeks like myself.

Roger Ebert's May 24th post on his indispensable Journal blog out of the Chicago Sun-Times, might stand as one of this treasured writer's most valuable posts. Aptly titled "The Dying of the Light," it illuminates many of the major problems that movie theaters face these days in competing with increasingly more satisfying home theater set-ups. Perhaps the most important piece of film journalism written in the past decade, it concerns itself with highly technical matters, but ones that are as important to movie theaters as getting the right sear on a piece of beef is to your average restaurant's customers (even if they don't KNOW the sear is important). Ebert's post (which reveals some troubling facts about digital projection, a format I've always distrusted) is an informative, honest, and scary piece about where the business of film exhibition is heading if it doesn't get its act together. Where is that? Down in the dumps. Massive layoffs. Abandoned theaters. Total sadness.

I personally cannot do without the movie exhibition business. I want to see movies projected, preferably via the richer 24 fps film, and projected correctly. Otherwise the revered millions of bucks and thousands of man hours being spent on their production means diddly squat. Godammnit, if the owners, managers and projectionists can't bothered to get passionate about what they do, then what the hell are we paying our money for?

Thanks to the great Jack Coursey for his photos of the 2nd and 3rd houses of the Tara theater, featured on his encyclopedic Cinemas Georgia website.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #18: "Benson, Arizona" from DARK STAR

Recently I watched a nifty little fan film called Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star. Though its obviously dedicated maker, Daniel Griffith, couldn't get on-screen interviews with the key figures behind this history-making 1974 cult movie, he still managed to construct a detailed and dramatic saga of Dark Star's history by talking to nearly everybody else connected with the movie (and he does manage to get both producer/director John Carpenter and writer/star Dan O'Bannon on record, though quite slyly). The film is slightly padded out with too much graphic repetition, but I'm being peevishly picky in mentioning it. It's a fan-driven film through and through, and I'm a fan, so I have to give Griffith's movie high marks. I really liked that it covers everything we Dark Star enthusiasts always wanted to know about this unusual production. It's like a special edition of Cinefantastique come to life.

I'll leave it to the reader to search Let There Be Light out, of course. But I wanted to underline the sequence in which it explores the madly surprising theme song to Dark Star, played as an innerspace radio transmission over the titular spaceship's transmitter as the opening credits hit the screen. Dark Star, if you haven't heard of it, is a way-out sci-fi comedy--a loose spoof of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey--in which four astronauts are stranded in space, put out there on a pointless planet-destroying mission, during which they encounter numerous obstacles that spell their eventual doom. In Let There Be Light, novice lyricist and veteran special effects artist Bill Taylor--who's worked on scads of movies like Blade Runner, What Dreams May Come, Cape Fear, The Thing and The Blues Brothers--tells us what inspired him to write the opening song:

I proposed to John (Carpenter) that it should be a country song...{to match with the idea of} truck drivers in space. And I went away and wrote the lyric. And he liked it. and I was amazed and delighted. It's called "Benson, Arizona" because, years earlier, about 1962, I had driven my little Morris Minor car for a long road trip from Los Angeles to Los Cruses, New Mexico, where my girlfriend lived, for the Christmas holiday. And my Morris Minor broke down in Benson, Arizona on Christmas Day...A gas station attendant identified the problem and he said "You know, there's a guy here in Benson who reconditions electrical parts for cars and he might be able to handle this generator. So he called this guy up on Christmas day and he sent me over there, and this guy, God bless him, had a Lucas generator. And he couldn't install it himself because he said he was all swelled up like a toad from eating too much Christmas dinner. But he gave me tools, and gave me good instructions, so I put in a new generator and I was on my way, thanks to two total strangers willing to help out a traveler on Christmas day. And I'm still very moved by that all these years later. So when it came time to write the lyric, I was thinking about "Where is the most unlikely place in the world that these guys could be longing for? A place so obscure that it would be funny..." So Benson, Arizona automatically came to mind. I wrote three verses--the third verse wasn't necessary--and it all timed out perfectly for the titles. The other nice side effect was that the lady I wen to visit on that Christmas ultimately wound up as my wife.

One of the chief reasons I've always adored Dark Star is because it seems exactly like what it is: a student film, three-fourths of which was filmed at the University of Southern California, where John Carpenter was a student. Let There Be Light meticulously details the journey Carpenter and O'Bannon's film took from being a little 16mm basement project to being a full-fledged 35mm cult classic. But I have to be up front about it: beyond O'Bannon's snide screenplay and supporting performance, beyond Carpenter's inventive direction with those ahead-of-the-times special effects, the theme song to the film became a key ingredient to why I instantly loved the movie when I first saw it in the early 1980s. "Benson, Arizona" is just utterly apt, and filled with the pinings these four unlikely, hippiefied astronauts for a little part of the Earth they'll never see again. Its inclusion into the final print of Dark Star helps tremendously in making the film into the fledgling near-masterwork it is.

After you enjoy part of the pre-song opening (with graphics by Dan O'Bannon), you'll hear it. The song is called "Benson, Arizona." Its evocative lyrics are by Bill Taylor and the music is by John Carpenter. It's sung by John Yeager, and it still give me chills to this day:

A million suns shine down
But I see only one
When I think I'm over you
I find I've just begun
The years move faster than the days
There's no warmth in the light
How I miss those desert skies
Your cool touch in the night

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

Now the years pull us apart
I'm young and now you're old
But you're still in my heart
And the memory won't grow cold
I dream of times and spaces
I left far behind
Where we spent our last few days
Benson's on my mind

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

MASTER LIST #21: The 50 Best Sequels

Another difficult list to compile. First off, I had to decide which sequels actually surpassed their originals in quality and influence (the first twenty entries make this cut). But, before this, I had to reconcile myself to whether or not entries in long-running series like the James Bond movies, the Hannibal Lecter series, and the Hope/Crosby "Road" movies counted as sequels. I decided the answer was yes, but I had to rank them in order to their intrinsic relation to their originals (hence, The Silence of the Lambs is lower down on the list, because its connection to Manhunter lies only in the inclusion of Lecter's character, and though Road to Morocco is the best in that series, it's strange to include them because Hope and Crosby's character names--but not their personalties--change from film to film). Unfortunately, I had to exclude a movie as great as Broadway Melody of 1940, because even though it was the last and best in a series of films started with the 1929 Best Picture winner, it's connection with that film was only in that it had been branded with the Broadway Melody trademark. Similarly, I had to exclude Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red and Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, because I thought they were really just parts of the same film. (In other words, you can't really GET those films without seeing the others in the series. This was a particularly hard thing to consider, because I wondered if this quality made them IDEAL sequels. That said, I'll be perfectly willing to hear arguments to the contrary, especially seeing as how I included The Empire Strikes Back in the top five.)

After all this was done, I had to rank the rest of the movies (post #22 or so) in order of quality, regardless of the reputation of their inspirations. There were about 25 movies that I felt varying pains in leaving off this list, including Powaqqatsi, In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders, Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint, The Big TNT Show, Come Back Charleston Blue, Army of Darkness, Britannia Hospital, Day of the Dead, The Spy Who Loved Me, Gator, Enemy from Space, War of the Colossal Beast, Texasville, The Snapper, Pusher II, The Living Daylights, and Rocky Balboa. So I include them here, to let you know I considered them. Finally, I should address the exclusion of The Dark Knight on this list. This here post will let you know what I think of that film: Heath Ledger's insanely immaculate performance as the Joker aside, there's no way that The Dark Knight is better than Batman Begins. So now, in order of preference, and judged by (1) comparison to the original, (2) overall quality and influence, (3) relation to the original, and (4) quality and influence of the original, here are my choice for the 50 best sequels out there:

1) The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 74; sequel to Coppola's 1972 original)
2) Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, 99; sequel to Lasseter's 1995 original).
3) O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 73; sequel to Anderson's 1968 film if... and second in Anderson's "Mick Travis" series)
4) The Empire Strikes Back (Irwin Kershner, 80; sequel to George Lucas' 1977 Star Wars)
5) The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 66; third entry in Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy)
6) The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 35; sequel to Whale's 1931 original)
7) Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 64; third in the James Bond series of films)
8) Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004; sequel to Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise)
9) The Road Warrior (George Miller, 81; sequel to Miller's 1979 film Mad Max)
10) Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) (Roy Ward Baker, 68; third in the Quatermass series of films)
11) Aliens (James Cameron, 86; sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien)
12) 28 Up (Michael Apted, 85; fourth in Apted's "Up" series of documentaries)
13) Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 79; sequel to Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead)
14) A Shot in the Dark (Blake Edwards, 64; second in Edwards' "Pink Panther" series)
15) Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006; 21st entry into the James Bond series)
16) Superman II (Richard Lester (and Richard Donner), 80; sequel to Richard Donner's 1978 original)
17) Road to Morocco (David Butler, 42; third in the seven-part Hope/Crosby series of "Road" movies started in 1940 with Road to Singapore)
18) The Testament of Orpheus (Jean Cocteau, 60; third in Cocteau's Orphic trilogy)
19) From Russia With Love (Terrence Young, 63; sequel to Young's 1962 film Dr. No, and second in the long-running James Bond series)
20) Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 34; sequel to W.S. Van Dyke's 1934 film Tarzan The Ape Man)
21) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 91; sequel to Michael Mann's 1986 film Manhunter)
22) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 69; sixth in the James Bond series)
23) Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 68; third in Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" series)
24) Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 87; sequel to Berri's 1986 film Jean De Florette)
25) The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 86; sequel to Robert Rossen's 1961 film The Hustler)
26) The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 33; sequel to Lang's 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler)
27) Magnum Force (Ted Post, 73; sequel to Don Siegel's 1971 film Dirty Harry and second in the long-running "Dirty Harry" series)
28) Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 87; sequel to Raimi's 1981 original)
29) Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003; sequel to Bergman's 1974 film Scenes From a Marriage)
30) For A Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 65; second in Leone's "Man With No Name: trilogy; sequel to his 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars)
31) Biloxi Blues (Mike Nichols, 88; sequel to Gene Saks' 1986 film Brighton Beach Memoirs, and second in Neil Simon's autobiographical play/film trilogy)]
32) Pumping Iron II: The Women (George Butler, 85; sequel to Butler and Robert Fiore's 1977 documentary original)
33) Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 36; sequel to Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula)
34) The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 45; sequel to McCarey's 1944 film Going My Way)
35) The New Land (Jan Troell, 72; sequel to Troell's 1971 film The Immigrants)
36) Rocky II (Sylvester Stallone, 79; sequel to John G. Avildsen's 1976 original)
37) The Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg, 75; sequel to Jack Smight's 1966 film Harper)
38) Spiderman II (Sam Raimi, 2004; sequel to Raimi's 2002 original)
39) Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, 98; sequel to Chris Noonan's 1995 film Babe)
40) This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 67; second installment in Marins' Coffin Joe series, started in 1963 with At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul)
41) French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 75; sequel to William Friedkin's 1971 original)
42) Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 85; sequel to Victor Fleming's 1939 film The Wizard of Oz)
43) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 89; third installment in Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" series, began in 1981 with Raiders of the Lost Ark)
44) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 90; sequel to Dante's 1984 original)
45) After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 36; sequel to Van Dyke's 1934 film The Thin Man, and second in a long-running series)
46) Dr. Phibes Rises Again (Robert Fuest, 72; sequel to Fuest's 1971 film The Abominable Dr. Phibes)
47) Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson, 72; fourth in the Planet of the Apes series, begun in 1968 with Franklin J. Schaffner's original)
48) Die Hard With A Vengeance (John McTiernan, 95; third in the John McClane series of action films, begun in 1988 with McTiernan's Die Hard)
49) Shock Treatment (Jim Sharman, 81; sequel to Sharman's 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
50) Big Top Pee-Wee (Randal Kleiser, 88; sequel to Tim Burton's 1985 film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure)

Coincidentally, while I was compiling my list, the estimable Matt Zoller Seitz compiled his own list of the top sequels on Salon. His #1 is brave and justified, but really, we all know the #1 choice is the one I picked. Mine may be an obvious selection, but there's a reason for that.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Five more terrific new trailers...

The revolution in movie trailer construction, last commented here on this post, continues:

TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

"GREEN WITH ENVY" (James Bobin, 2011)

MELANCHOLIA (Lars Von Trier, 2011)

SUBMARINE (Richard Ayoade, 2010)

50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

Film #142: Theater of Blood

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I spent much of my time at my grandmother's modest yet spectacular post-war house on Franklin Circle in Atlanta, GA. It was located only about two minutes away from my elementary school, so I'd amble down the hill when school was out and she'd watch after me until my parents came to pick me up. My grandmother was a funny, sweet, unique individual--I really loved her. But perhaps one of my favorite parts about visiting her house was the opportunity to hang out with her next-door neighbors, an intelligent and friendly (and childless) couple named Jane and Howard Schneider.

I always like to say that it was Jane who taught me how to read. She always counters by saying I already knew how to read when she met me (I must have been five or six at the time). She's right, I suppose; I had already started in on my movie obsession by pouring over the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's movie section (I remember asking my parents what sex was after seeing the ad for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask). By the time we met, I was already a confirmed horror movie fan; my mom and dad had long been allowing me to purchase of Forrest J. Ackerman's legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland. And I was also a devoted Sesame Street and Electric Company disciple, so I guess I did have some pretty fierce reading skills at a young age.

So if I ultimately have to agree with Jane in that I knew how to read, even she would have to agree that it was she who introduced my to my first, real meaty literature. Knowing that I was a horror fan, she decided to pull an Edgar Allan Poe collection off her well-stocked bookshelves. She helped me go through Poe's "The Raven" first. When I had trouble pronouncing or understanding words, she'd help me through it. Of course, the poem's mood, cadence and drollery had a tremendous effect on me. I was henceforth a die-hard Poe fan.

So when I found out that so many movies had been made from Poe's works in the 1960s, I gobbled them all up (they were playing on TV, and as second features at drive-ins a lot in those days). And, as a result, I then also became a Vincent Price devotee. I watched The Raven, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligia, and The Oblong Box all because I recognized the titles as being Edgar Allan Poe stories. Sometimes, as with the
case of The Conqueror Worm or The Tomb of Ligia, the titles were the only things the movies had in common with Poe's works, but this didn't register with me until much later in life. What I really loved about these movies is that they all starred Vincent Price.

When the Journal-Constitution announced, in 1974, that Vincent Price was coming to Emory University to give a talk, Jane immediately bought two tickets and revealed to me that we were going to see my idol, live and in the flesh. I was flabbergasted. I wonder now if this wasn't my first realization that these were real people up on the screen--people with their own lives and experiences outside of what they did for the movies. I can remember the rainy night's drive to Emory's White Hall, and thinking that it was a fittingly spooky fall night to be seeing Vincent Price.

Before we got there, Jane asked me "Don't you think it would be nice if we got him a gift?" The thought hadn't occurred to me, but I immediately agreed. We decided to stop at a book store. I had read that he was a cook (a gormand, really) and Jane knew that he was an avowed Anglophile with a special interest in the Victorian Era. So we went to the cooking section and, amazingly, found a cookbook devoted solely to Victorian recipes; I can still remember the book's regal cover, with a portrait of the young Queen Victoria on it. It was a perfect, thoughtful gift.

We took out seats in the exact middle of the packed hall and at 8 pm sharp, Mr. Price was brought out on the stage. In his dark grey suit and bright tie, he looked like a giant, even from sitting this far back (he stood at around 6 foot three). He then proceeded to give a thrilling talk. I can recall his hearty recitations--by memory, no less--of an Oscar Wilde poem, and then an even more spirited one of my favorite "The Raven." And I can remember laughing at one tale he told about going to see House of Wax at an Los Angeles theater upon its 1953 release. With much sinister glee, he said that he decided to take a seat behind two teenage girls who sat screaming and squirming throughout the entire film. When it was over and the lights came up, he put his hands on their shoulders and asked them, in THAT voice, "Did you like it?" He said they almost soiled themselves.

Afterwards, Jane and I took our place in a line of people waiting to meet Vincent. He was very patient, and short-shrifted no one. When it came time for our visit with him, I was quite nervous. I was holding the book, and Jane did a lot of the talking. She shook his hand and introduced me as one of his biggest fans. He looked down at me and put his hand on the back of my head, and I said "We got you a gift." He took the book and thanked me profusely, saying that he'd never seen this particular tome. Jane told him that I was a huge movie fan, and very precocious. He then bent down and looked me in the eye and asked "Which picture of mine do you like the most?" I immediately answered Theater of Blood. He registered a bit of surprise and said "Well, you have excellent taste. That's my favorite, too." He handed me a sheet of paper, which he had signed and dedicated to me, "With gratitude and love." Jane shook hands with him and led me off. I waved to Vincent Price as we left the stage, and my first meeting with a celebrity was over. I was in a daze on the way home, and a passel of lifelong loves were sealed--for Mr. Price, for the movies, and for Jane, who has remained a strong influence (really, she's my other mother).

I still adore Theater of Blood to this day, way after I first saw it with my parents at the Northeast Expressway Drive-In in 1973. Price's role as the steadfastly Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart, who refuses to abandon the past just for the sheer sake of keeping up with the times, seems ridiculously well-suited for him. But on top of that, I can now see that it's a skillfully directed, acted, and written film all around.

Theater of Blood begins with a brilliantly clever credits sequence that peppers the title cards with clips from silent film adaptations of Shakespeare's works. All of the scenes we see are murder sequences that will reoccur in the film we are watching. The sequence is backed by Michael J. Lewis regal theme music (his score is still one of the best ever written, filled with loss and longing). We are then treated to the film's first shot: a truck that's wryly marked "Shakespeare's Removers" barreling down the throughway, as the camera pulls pack to reveal one of the film's victims, stage critic George William Maxwell (Michael Hordern) reading the newspaper and complaining that his editors have massacred his newest scathing review. He answers the phone and is off on an errand to get some squatters out of a tenement building which he and a redevelopment committee are trying to tear down. His wife warns him vociferously not to go, because she had a bad dream the night before, and his March horoscope says he's to avoid difficult situations. "Ahh, the Ides of March," he comments before poo-pooing his wife's concerns, and he's on his way.

Here the horror begins, with Maxwell being cut to ribbons by a band of terribly scary vagrants a la Julius Caesar. He stumbles around and comes face to face with our hero, Edward Lionheart who, disguised as a constable, uses this opportunity to launch into some lines from Shakespeare's play. Hordern's character can only manage one last sentence as he looks into Lionheart's unmasked face. "You--but you're dead!" "No. No. Another critical miscalculation on your part, my boy. I am well. It is you who are dead."

And so the rhythm of Douglas Hickox's film is set up, as we are introduced to the members of the London Critic's Circle as a whole. They are, ironically, played by an exquisite set of actors with some hilarious character names: Robert Morely (the gluttonous Meridith Merridew), Harry Andrews (lustful Trevor Dickman), Ian Hendry (Peregrine Devlin, the youngest and most level-headed member of the crew), Arthur Lowe (henpecked Horace Sprout), Coral Browne (the vain Miss Chloe Moon), Robert Coote (the wine-crazy Oliver Larding), Dennis Price (the sneering Hector Snipe), and Jack Hawkins (jealous husband Solomon Psaltery, who's married to a licentious cow played by Diana Dors)  Now I'm seeing that they each and all represent the Seven Deadly Sins.

Through the investigation of the redoubtable Inspector Boot (played by Irish thespian Milo O'Shea), and through the amateur detective work of Hendry's Peregrine Devlin, we discover that the critics are being targeted by Lionheart because they continually murdered his performances by words and deeds. Lest you think that I'm giving away too much of the plot, this becomes very clear early on. The joy in watching Theater of Blood comes not in revelatory plot points--we know most of these despicable critics are doomed from the start. Said joy instead comes in seeing the inventive ways in which all murders are transposed from the pages of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter and into the modern world, all right under the noses of a grievously clueless Scotland Yard, who can't even garner leads from Lionheart's daughter, played with a witty coldness by Diana Rigg.

Chiefly, of course, Theater of Blood gives us an opportunity to see a fine and often equally misjudged actor like Vincent Price deliver some of the Bard's greatest words in a winkingly hammy fashion. The film, while being wonderfully grungy and gory, is a diabolically adroit compilation of many Shakespearian monologues from works like Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and Cymbaline. But, if that sort of thing doesn't float your boat, and gore is what you're after, then gore is what you get, in bright red strokes. There are stabbings, drownings, draggings, beheadings (oh, how the scene with Arthur Lowe being murdered in bed has me in stitches-pun intended--each time I see it), electrocutions, and a memorable gorging that's saved for last. Almost all of them are completely horrifying while also being keen and jolly, thanks to the superb script by Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann and John Kohn.

Director Hickox had previously delivered a passable 1970 adaptation of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and a notable 1979 prequel to Stanley Baker's 1964 war epic Zulu, called Zulu Dawn. But most of his output was forgettable, so it becomes even more remarkable that Theater of Blood is as fine a film as it is (though critics, predictably, savaged it upon its 1973 release; many were probably offended, I guess, that they were being targeted as villains). Hickox makes the wise choice to shoot entirely on location, making the film a grand tour of both the sumptuous and decaying sides of 1970s London (he's helped along by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, whose favoring of wide-angle lenses and colorful contrasts enlivens the movie considerably).

Still, when I watch Theater of Blood today, I am bowled over by Vincent Price's performance; it looms over everything else in the movie. Decked out in a myriad of inventive costumes (by Michael Baldwin) and make-up applications (by the deft George Blackler), his Edward Lionheart is at once dramatically compelling, darkly hilarious, and easy to love. The film must have appealed to him on so many levels (Price got to explore his Anglophilia, his acting roots, his love of good food and wine, and he even gets to murder his wife, actress Coral Browne, on screen). It's a terrific film. I'm so glad to have met Mr. Price, and to have agreed with him, for that one wonderful moment, that Theater of Blood provided him with his greatest screen triumph.

Friday, May 27, was the 100th anniversary of Mr. Price's birth. I celebrate it here, but also at The Flaming Nose, where I delve into his many television appearances, and deeper into the man's charming personality.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #17: "My Name is Tallulah" from BUGSY MALONE

Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone is one of the few films from my childhood that I still look at with the same adoration I first felt for it. Its melding of the adult and juvenile worlds seems now seamless. It stands as perfection, in its own odd way. When, as children, we all play at the grown-up games of rampant violence--whether it be cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, superheroes and villains--I think Parker's clear, humane vision is exactly what we have in our heads. And I really like that Bugsy Malone doesn't short-shrift the loftier sexual aspects of all this rigamarole. Of course, we have Jodie Foster as the moll at the center of this very post. But we also have the now forgotten Florie Dugger (GREAT NAME!) as Blousie Brown, whom we root for as the eventual match for the title character, played by Scott Baio (surely the actor's finest showing--talk about peaking early!). Scott Baio's Bugsy is a playa, for certain, and he has his pick of the litter. I find that fascinating. Should it be shocking to note that kids have sexual lives, too? This movie seems to be one of the two or three I can name that has no problem in admitting that.

Bugsy Malone follows the title character as he tries to bounce between two gangster families who're aiming their pie-thrusting guns at each other (the "deaths" in this film are, for me, as stunning as anything I later experienced in, say, GoodFellas). Parker has the character buffeting between show biz, the boxing gym, the indigent and the well-fed realms in equal measures. It's an incredibly smart film. Bugsy Malone was largely ignored in the US, even though its score and songwriter, Paul Williams, garnered an Oscar nomination for his song score in 1976. In Britain--its country of origin (even though none of its cast members were British)--the film won five BAFTA awards, including two for Jodie Foster (Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Newcomer), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Screenplay (it lost the award for costume design, direction, and Best Film). I seriously think it should have been in the running stateside for almost all of these awards (but it WAS an especially competitive year that year--Foster got a Supporting Actress nomination, but for her not-so-different role in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver). Maybe Parker's film was ignored because it was literally a diminutation of a uniquely American genre--the gangster film. But that makes no sense, ultimately, because the gangster film genre has never gotten much love from Hollywood. But never mind all that. The fact that a sweet, meaty, well-made movie like Bugsy Malone is now footnote in film history makes me angry even as I write now (there's not even a great DVD out there--and I think The Criterion Collection, if it were as ballsy as it purports to be, should get on this immediately).

The art direction, by Geoffrey Kirkland, is at first outstanding. All the sets had to be built in congress to the size of its all-kid cast (the pie-guns and bicycle-powered cars are a major plus). The film editing, by Alan Parker mainstay Gerry Hambling, is exquisite. And the same goes for Monica Howe's costume design, as well as for the expert makeup and hair styling team. The film gets absolutely nothing wrong in completing the illusion that these are adults in kid costumes. This becomes doubly amazing when you consider that none of the lip-synching is done to kid voices; Parker made the brave decision to have adults do all the singing, and even though it seems like a choice that could have spelled disaster, it works (he makes no effort to hide the fact, either, which makes it an extra-snap). In fact, Bugsy Malone doesn't just WORK, it's compelled into the stratosphere by the very things that must have seemed most risky. It's a strange effect, hearing these adult voices and attitudes behind these kid faces, but it is completely successful, in a variety of bizarre ways. After its all seen, Bugsy Malone is a one-of-a-kind picture. There's nothing out there that resembles it.

The BAFTA got it correct when it awarded then newcomer Alan Parker with the screenplay award. If the dialogue hadn't rung true, then none of this would've carried out. But Parker's writing is convincing, even out of babe's mouths. (It helps that the film is extraordinarily well-cast, down to the most expendable bit players; there are some actors here that you cannot believe are not adults. I especially like the unforgettable John Cassisi as Fat Sam, who's surely one of the greatest gangsters ever committed to film.) And the plot is never uninteresting. In a lot of musical comedies, the plot becomes beside the point. Just get us to the laffs and songs, usually, But not here: here, we actually CARE what happens. Given that, to this day, Parker's movie remains funny, clever, adorable, and threatening at a moment's turn. And when coupled with the exacting film craft and the wise selection of Paul Williams' music and lyrics, Bugsy Malone is unbeatable.

I could choose almost all of Williams' Bugsy Malone compositions as Forgotten Movie Songs entries. And I still might. But the first I will point to is Jodie Foster's introduction, called "My Name is Talullah." For me, this is a stone-cold classic of movie-centric songwriting. The only way I can explain its exclusion from the Academy Awards' Best Song race is that the movie itself seemed so wild (and, perhaps, uncomfortable to watch) for so many male Academy members that it's chances were sunk from the get-go. (This film has gone on to be a popular production on local stages, with "My Name is Tallulah" as a centerpiece; meanwhile, here are three of the Best Song nominees of that year: "Ave Satani" from The Omen, "Come to Me" from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and "A World That Never Was" from Half a House -- surely you've heard of them). Even the eventual winner, "Evergreen" from A Star is Born (co-written by Paul Williams--coincidence?--with Barbara Streisand) is not as catchy as this tune.

I don't know who sung this song originally. But it's Jodie Foster lip-synching the performance (and I love how she plays it--especially when Parker has her interrupt her performance by taking a drink off a passing waiter's tray). I also have to comment on Parker's direction here; is it me, or has he been heavily influenced by Bob Fosse's Cabaret, in his use of lenses and varying shots? Certainly the sexuality is there for all to see; is this perhaps the thing that's kept this movie from being appreciated? Are we all so afraid of being perverts, after the Reagan era, that we can't enjoy this perfect movie? Well...I say, screw that. The exquisite music and lyrics are by Paul Williams (whom I suspect also arranged the tune). It's impossible not to want to see this movie in full, if you haven't seen it already, after you view this (it's available now on You Tube, in parts). The fun lyrics follow the clip:

My name is Tallulah
My first rule of thumb
I don't say where I'm going
Or where I'm coming from
I try to leave a little reputation behind me
So if you really need to
You'll know how to find me

My name is Tallulah
I live till I die
I'll take what you give me
And I won't ask why
I've made a lot of friends
In some exotic places
I don't remember names
But I remember faces

You don't have to be lonely
Come and see Tallulah
We can chase your troubles away, oh
If you're lonely
You don't have to be lonely
When they talk about Tallulah
You know what they say
No one south of Heaven's
Gonna treat you finer
Tallulah had her training
In North Carolina

My name is Tallulah
And soon I'll be gone
An open invitation
Is the road I'll travel on
I'll never say goodbye
Because the words upset me
You may forgive my goin'
But you won't forget me

You don't have to be lonely
Come and see Tallulah
We can chase your troubles away
If you're lonely
You don't have to be lonely
When they talk about Tallulah
You know what they say
No one south of Heaven's
Gonna treat you finer
Tallulah had her training
In North Carolina

MASTER LIST #20: The 50 Best Remakes

It was a little difficult, compiling this list. I had to decide what deserved to be a remake and what didn't. Did remaking TV series, or TV-produced teleplays count? (They do.) And did musical remakes, having been made for stage originally, count? (Yes, they do, too.) How about remakes of historical dramas and classic stories by Shakespeare and the like? (I decided against this; these stories belong to the ages, though I perhaps broke this rule with 1963's Cleopatra). But, then again, in including The End of the Affair, The Bounty, The Winslow Boy and 1973's musical remake of Tom Sawyer, did I further break this rule? (I decided not, since only two or three versions of each tale have ever been filmed, and no more are likely to ever be filmed again.)

In the end, I preferred to include largely only films that were remakes of other filmed products. At any rate, after all my haggling over this stuff, I'm supremely satisfied with this list. I think it's definitive. I've included the directors and years of production, along with the creators/originators of the original versions. If no other title is cited, then the title of the remake is the same as the original. The titles are ranked in order according to (1) overall quality, (2) allegiance to, divergence from, and improvement upon the original, and (3) overall influence. A final interesting note: six filmmakers have remade their own films--Hitchcock, McCarey, Lucas, Anderson, Haneke, and Wyler.

1) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 57; remake of Reginald Rose's 1954 Studio One TV teleplay)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 41; remake of Roy Del Ruth's 1931 film)
3) A Star is Born (George Cukor, 54; remake of William Wellman's 1937 film)
4) Pennies From Heaven (Herbert Ross, 81; remake of Dennis Potter and Piers Haggards' 78 British TV series)
5) The Thing (John Carpenter, 82; remake of Christian Nyby's (and Howard Hawks') 1951 film The Thing (From Another World))
6) The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell and Alexander Korda, et al., 40; remake of Raoul Walsh's 1924 film)
7) His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 40; remake of Lewis Milestone's 1931 film The Front Page)
8) Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 77; remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film The Wages of Fear)
9) Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 91; remake of J. Lee Thompson's 1962 film)
10) The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Mingella, 99; remake of René Clément's 1960 film Purple Noon)
11) THX-1138 (George Lucas, 71; remake of Lucas' 1967 student-made short film Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB; retooled for the digital age in a landmark 2004 director's cut)
12) Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years to Earth, Roy Ward Baker, 67; remake of 1959 British TV series)
13) The Fly (David Cronenberg, 86; remake of Kurt Neumann's 1958 film)
14) An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 57; remake of McCarey's 1939 film Love Affair)
15) Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 82; remake of Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 film)
16) The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 56; remake of Hitchcock's 1934 film)
17) Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010; remake of Tomas Alfredson's 2008 film Let The Right One In)
18) Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 88; remake of Marcel Pagnol's 1952 film Manon de Sources)
19) A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 64; remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo)
20) Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 59; remake of John M. Stahl's 1931 film)
21) Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 96; remake of Anderson's 1994 short film)
22) Traffic (Steven Soderburgh, 2001; remake of Alistair Reed and Simon Moore's 1989 British TV series Traffik)
23) Men Don’t Leave (Paul Brickman, 90; remake of Moshé Mizrahi's 1981 film La Vie Coninue)
24) Intermezzo: A Love Story (Gregory Ratoff, 39; remake of Gustaf Molander's 1936 film Intermezzo)
25) The Bounty (Roger Donaldson, 84; remake of Frank Lloyd's 1935 film, and of Lewis Milestone's 1962 film, both called Mutiny on the Bounty)
26) Marty (Delbert Mann, 55; remake of Fred Coe and Paddy Chayefsky's 1953 TV production for The Goodyear Television Playhouse)
27) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 78; remake of Don Siegel's 1956 film)
28) The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006; remake of Andrew Lau's 2002 film Infernal Affairs)
29) The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 93; remake of Roy Huggin's 63-67 TV series)
30) Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry, 78; remake of Alexander Hall's 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
31) Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 76; remake of Howard Hawks' 1959 film Rio Bravo)
32) The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan, 99; remake of Edward Dmytryk's 1955 film)
33) Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mackiewicz, 63; remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 film)
34) Nosferatu The Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 79; remake of F.W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu)
35) M (Joseph Losey, 51; remake of Fritz Lang's 1931 film)
36) The Winslow Boy (David Mamet, 99; remake of Anthony Asquith's 1948 film)
37) The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 60; remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film The Seven Samarai)
38) The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 87; remake of the 1959-63 TV series)
39) Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002; musical remake of Frank Urson's 1927 film and of William Wellman's 1942 film Roxie Hart)
40) Solaris (Steven Soderburgh, 2002; remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film)
41) Brimstone and Treacle (Richard Loncraine, 82; remake of Dennis Potter's 1976 British TV play)
42) The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 81; remake of Tay Garnett's 1946 film)
43) Tom Sawyer (Don Taylor, 73; musical remake of Norman Taurog's 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
44) The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 96; remake of Edouard Molinaro's 1978 film La Cage Aux Folles)
45) Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2007; shot-for-shot American remake of Haneke's French-language 1997 film)
46) The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 61; remake of Wyler's 1936 film These Three)
47) Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 86; musical remake of Roger Corman and Charles B. Grffith's 1960 film)
48) The Unholy Three (Jack Conway, 30; remake of Tod Browning's 1925 silent version, also starring Lon Chaney)
49) Ben-Hur (William Wyler et al, 59; remake of Fred Niblo's 1925 film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ)
50) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz, 88; remake of Ralph Levy's 1964 film Bedtime Story)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Film #141: The Rapture

Sharon, don't you understand what's going on? The world's a disaster. We have no power to make it better. You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you're rushing off to something that's not even there.

Here in America, at least, the Facebook pages are a-twitter over radio preacher Harold Camping's well-publicized predictions about Jesus' long-awaited return to Earth, scheduled to happen today, May 21st, 2011. If it were to occur, naturally, it would mean the end of life as we know it. But this, of course, is not the first time such a monumental change has been predicted. For centuries, both science and religion have been responsible for past foretellings of "the end of the world," all for naught.

There are two films set to come out immediately that have the planet's imminent demise as a central concern (Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and Mike Cahill's Another Earth). Zombies--another endtimes feature--are all the rage, like they never have been before; there are popular TV shows, films, and books grabbing our imaginations with grisly flesh-eaters transforming the world into a giant restaurant. There are even "Zombie Pub Crawls" going on in many cities, with participants dressing up as blood-spattered monsters substituting beer for meat. And nearly every film dealing with aliens these days has them intent on destroying humanity; gone are the days of Close Encounters and E.T. Now, with Greg Mottola's recent comedy Paul being a notable exception, we're back to the 50s-era notion that all that possible otherworldly beings want from us is our disappearance (Battle: Los Angeles and Monsters are the two most recent entries in these sweepstakes). And when you look at documentaries, you'll see some dire predictions in films like Collapse, Endgame, and even An Inconvenient Truth.

I have to believe that all this talk about the "end of the world" is fear-based: fear of the troubled present, fear of the deceased past, and fear of the unknowable future. But it also has roots in both hope and boredom--boredom with an ongoing state of flux, and hope for a massive worldwide change that just might give us a chance to start all over again, clean slate--and even, for some of us, to ascend to a state where all our needs will be happily met forever. But, really, all of this talk is pointless. I tend to agree with George Carlin, who was always there with the smarts. In a 1992 HBO special called Jammin' in New York, he laid into the environmentalist movement, and implicated all those who see the "end of the world" coming:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. The planet…the planet isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE! We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

But for those who believe in the teachings of Christianity, the end of the world--or what they call "the Rapture"--is a very real thing. In fact, to me, it seems that the religion's most serious and powerful believers are trying to steer the world to the apocalyptic precipice, just so they can point to the Bible, as everything's burning around us, and say "See? It's says it would happen right HERE. See? I told ya!" They'd rather be right than be happy.

Michael Tolkin's brave, eerie 1991 drama The Rapture is probably about as close as any filmmaker is ever going to come in treating the event with some sort of realism. Its central character, Sharon (Mimi Rogers), begins the film as a 411 operator who fights the soul-killing dullness of her day job by enjoying hedonistic nights with her oily, Eurotrash partner Vic (Patrick Bauchau). They troll the bars and airports, searching for willing participants in sexual games that end in nothing but lonely, post-coital bedside regrets. Sharon leads a miserable existence at the beginning of The Rapture, and it's not long before her mind buckles under the pressure, leading her to slowly start questioning her choices.

She does so first by breaking a cardinal rule of swinging: she gets emotionally involved with one of her conquests, played by a pre-X-Files David Duchovny (with a mullet, no less). Then, she starts hearing rumblings at her workplace breakroom about The Boy, and about The Pearl, and their relationship to the coming Apocalypse. She's visited by two religious proselytizers going door-to-door urging people to wise up and accept Jesus into their hearts before it's too late. In her empty beige apartment, she challenges their beliefs and watches as they freeze up in suspicion when she asks about The Boy. She's informed that The Boy is one prophet out of many all over the world who are preaching about the imminent arrival of the rapture. But she still can't believe, especially when one of the men says "I was like you once." Sharon answers "I doubt it," and shows them the door.

It takes a tattoo to truly shake her, though. One night, she and Vic pick up another couple, and she is shocked when the girl (Carole Davis) reveals an impossibly elaborate artwork that covers her entire backside. She says she got it one night when she was drunk. Right there, in between her shoulder blades, is God's hand offering the Pearl to the world, with trumpeters, fire, and destruction completing the scene. Sharon can't even concentrate on sex after glimpsing the tattoo; she stops everything to ask her about it. And from then on, Sharon is hooked. She reaches out to those people whispering about the Rapture in her breakroom. She challenges Duchovny's Randy with her spiritual rumblings, which he sees as signs of a deep, depressional delusion, but which she sees as a need to feel clean. After taking a 3 a.m. shower and obsessively brushing her teeth, she reveals herself: "When we do something wrong, we feel bad and that's because there's a little bit of God inside of all of us, telling us to change our ways before it's too late. Isn't that right?" Randy protests this view of the world and, as a result, while worriedly flossing her teeth, she tells him to get out.

It's here that Tolkin's film gets even more deadly serious (excepting a couple of scenes with a humorously deadbeat drifter played by James LeGros, The Rapture is a movie with zero laughs). Sharon continues on her journey of discovery, constantly asking questions as would a child. Only now she's transformed into a too-frantic true believer (especially after she receives a warming vision of the Pearl). And so she prepares herself. She wins Randy over to her side, and they have a child (played with a bizarre gratingness by Kimberly Cullum). Still, she can't stop questioning (when she challenges The Boy with doubt, he forbodingly answers "Don't ask God to meet you halfway"). But it's in Sharon's fundamental nature to debate, to inquire, to challenge. It's something God has put inside of her. And it gets her into a trouble she's forced to live with, up to and beyond the film's stupendous, somewhat horrifying final image.

I refuse to go into greater detail about where Tolkin's magnificent, fair-minded screenplay leads us. The film hinges on surprise (in surprising ways), and it would be unfair to deny them to you. I'll only say that, whenever I expose new viewers to this film, when it's all over, they rub their eyes and stay silent for a while. It's one of those films that leaves you with very little to say, because it says it all so brilliantly. Mimi Rogers is insanely perfect in the lead, hitting more notes than in a Mozart symphony; I dare say few actresses have ever sidled up to a more challenging role and nevertheless hit every beat required of them as spot on as Rogers does. She's absolutely remarkable in it.

I also like the greasy Duchovny and especially Will Patton, who arrives in the third act playing against type as a good-hearted police officer who arrives as an angel of sorts to help Sharon and her daughter through difficult times. And, while The Rapture's inevitable climax, though helped by Thomas Newman's terrifying score, could have possibly used a bit more money to up its production values, I'm still kind of glad they kept things on a small scale. This is a film about people and ideas, not about special effects and, besides, I think the low-budgeted images make the film all the scarier. Because, in the end, The Rapture is about fear and how it's mingled forever with faith, and about the responsibility God--if there IS a God--has towards those who dare question his blind judgement.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #16: "Da Butt" from SCHOOL DAZE

I felt like hopping up the pace of the songs featured in this series, so I thought of this wild number from Spike Lee's 1988 quasi-musical School Daze. Filmed partially at Atlanta's Morehouse College, the oldest black university in the nation (where Lee attended before moving on to NYU's film school), this free-wheeling picture charts a few days in the lives of students pledging fraternities, partying, and squabbling about surprising racial schisms within the black community. The film wasn't well-received upon its release; it was considered rather lightweight in parts, and iron-handed in others (particularly in its memorably jarring ending). But I remember really liking it in 1988; I considered it an ambitious sophomore effort from writer/director/star Spike Lee, whom I thought stepped up his indie game following his smash 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It.

The cast is uniformly committed, with a sharp blend of then-newcomers (Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, Bill Nunn, Roger Smith, Kyme, Joie Lee, Rusty Cundieff, Branford Marsalis) and veterans (Lawrence Fishburne, Ossie Davis, Joe Seneca, Art Evans and Samuel L. Jackson). The interplay between the groups leads to scenes like this one, in which the college kids have a run in with some townies, led by the always powerful Jackson. I really like the dialogue here:

And School Daze explored an issue I never knew existed before I saw it: the overt racism to which lighter-skinned blacks subject their darker-skinned fellows. This explosive theme is especially highlighted in an old-style musical number between two groups of girls, the Wannabes (who wanna be white, with their treated hair) and the Jigaboos (who like the natural look) in the excellent Bill Lee-penned "Straight and Nappy." I also liked how the movie portrays the frat life as a raucous bummer. On top of all this, School Daze has a true flavor of the South, without all the abject, unthoughtful idiocy usually found in movies about the region (it's refreshing that there's not a white person in sight in School Daze).

Of course, my favorite sequence in it remains the party scene where the joint is rollin' to the band E.U., performing "Da Butt." It's a hilarious song with lotsa naughty lyrical work ("Doin' da butt!"). The tune, with music and lyrics by Marcus Miller and Mark Stevens, is a radically catchy 80s soul/dance song that's blossomed into a classic, just as the film has, I believe. So, here is the Spike Lee-directed video for E.U's "Da Butt," with the lyrics following it.

Alright. Come on. Sing it one time
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
Sing! Ow!
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
Ha! Ha!

Walked in this place surprised to see
A big girl gettin' busy, just rockin' to the go-go beat
The way she shook her booty sho' looked good to me
I said, 'Come here, big girl, won't you rock my world
Show that dance to me.' She was

Doin' da butt.
Pretty, pretty
When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion, hey
Doin' da butt.
Hey sexy, sexy
Ain't nothing wrong, if you
Wanna do da butt all night long

(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
Ow, what you gonna do about it
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
Shake it!
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)

I took that girl out on the floor
She rocked me from the backside
We did the butt til it made me sore
Now, it's a physical thing, but not hard to do
You just shake-a shake shake shake
Shake-a shake shake
Doin' the butt the whole night through, come on


That's right! Shake your butt.
Come on! Gimme that butt! Gimme that butt!

Tanya got a big ol' butt (oh yeah?)
Theresa got a big ol' butt (oh yeah?)
Irene got a big ol' butt (oh yeah?)
Melissa got a big ol' butt now
And Sonya got a big ol' butt (oh yeah?)
And Shirley got a big ol' butt (oh yeah?)
Ol' Tammy got a bubble butt (oh yeah?)
Little Keisha got a big ol' butt, now, gimme the butt!

(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
I'm gonna drop you lines, before we set up
We're screamin' at girls with the big ol' butt, sing it
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah) Ow!
(Ee-yeah yeah. Ee-yeah yeah yeah yeah)
I want your butt.
That butt.
That big ol' big ol' butt. Ow!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Who Should Win the 2012 Honorary Oscars?

I chime in every year on filmicability in regards to this yearly question, which these days is usually arrived at around the end of August. It was a bit controversial, the Academy's recent decision to fete the Honorary Oscar winners with the separate Autumnal ceremony prior to the February/March competitive Oscar show. But, in many ways, I kind of like how they're handling the Honorary Oscars now. Those moviemaking legends who're chosen get a warmer ceremony that doesn't try and rush the honorees off stage (and which internet-savvy fans can watch almost in full on the Academy's website). And they still get to be a substantial part of the wider-seen Oscar party come the new year. Best of all, this allows the Academy to hand out three or four Honorary Oscars per year, since eating up time on the rilly big shoo isn't an issue anymore. This also frees up the Academy to be more adventurous in their choices. In the end, I'd much rather see more artists deserving of the award actually receiving it, regardless of whether they can be seen getting it on television. TV exposure is beside the point; these people who've given their lives to the filmmaking art deserve recognition. If it means we need to trade off TV time for the opportunity for three or four artists a year to receive their due, then I think this is fair.

In the years since this blog has existed, I have posted two articles trying to predict the winners of this award: here in 2008 and here in 2010. Each time, I have been able to predict at least one of the winners. Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Ennio Morricone, Roger Corman, Lauren Bacall, Jerry Lewis, Jean-Luc Godard, and Gordon Willis have all been on my wish lists, and all have garnered their Oscar (or Hersholt, or Thalberg awards).

So, this Spring, I choose to highlight just ten more names to add to the ones I've already stated should be considered for Honorary Oscars. Just in case you haven't clicked over to my previous choices are (and these are the ones who haven't been chosen yet): Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles, Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, James Ivory, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Peter Bogdonovich, Albert Finney, Kyle Cooper, Burt Reynolds, and Woody Allen. Here are my 10 choices for this year, in no preferential order:

Douglas Trumbull, special effects artist and director. KEY FILMS (as FX supervisor): 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner; (as director): Silent Running, Brainstorm. For his brilliant engineering of special effects for movies (including his return to FX this year for Malick's The Tree of Life); for helping develop the IMAX format; and for his groundbreaking work on a variety of film-based theme-park rides.

Roger Ebert, film critic and screenwriter. KEY FILM: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It might seem unusual to posit Mr. Ebert for a Special Oscar, given that his involvement in the meat-and-potatoes of film production is minimal. But who else out there has promoted the love of motion pictures more? He's given his entire life to the art form, and continues giving through his annual Ebertfest and his popular online presence. The guy has conquered newspapers, television, and the Internet with his analysis of all things cinematic. He was the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer; I think he should become the first one to win the Oscar, too. By the way: this would be a HUGELY popular choice.

Paul Mazursky, actor, writer, and director. KEY FILMS: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, Next Stop Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Enemies: A Love Story. An indelible voice on film throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Mazursky has a style all his own, and it's time it was recognized for its colorfully humanistic verve.

Gena Rowlands, actress. KEY FILMS: Shadows, Lonely are the Brave, A Child is Waiting, Faces, Minnie and Moscowicz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, Gloria, Tempest, Love Streams, Another Woman, Night On Earth, Something to Talk About, Hope Floats, The Notebook. One of our greatest actors and, lastly, our deepest connection to Mr. Cassavetes.

Christopher Lee, actor. KEY FILMS: Hamlet, Moulin Rouge, The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, She, Rasputin: The Mad Monk, The Magic Christian, The Devil Rides Out, Scream and Scream Again, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Hannie Caulder, The Wicker Man, The Man with the Golden Gun, 1941, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Triage, Alice in Wonderland, Hugo Cabret, The Hobbit. For a breathtaking body of work that continues, after six decades, to make its mark on the medium.

John Boorman, writer, director and producer. KEY FILMS: Catch Us If You Can, Hell In the Pacific, Point Blank, Leo the Last, Deliverance, Zardoz, Excalibur, Hope and Glory, The Emerald Forest, The General, The Tailor of Panama. A brilliant director, through and through.

Doris Day, actress. KEY FILMS: Young Man with a Horn, Calamity Jane, Young at Heart, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Pajama Game, Teacher's Pet, Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, Please Don't Eat The Daisies, Lover Come Back, That Touch of Mink, Move Over Darling, Send Me No Flowers, With Six You Get Eggroll. For being a singular presence in film for two decades, often in which she was the #1 box office attraction.

Ken Russell, writer and director. KEY FILMS: Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, The Boy Friend, Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, The Lair of the White Worm, The Rainbow. For being a lovably wacky author of one-of-a-kind motion pictures.

Owen Roizman , cinematographer. KEY FILMS: The French Connection, Play It Again Sam, The Heartbreak Kid, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Exorcist, Three Days of the Condor, The Stepford Wives, Network, Straight Time, True Confessions, The Electric Horseman, Absence of Malice, Taps, Tootsie, Havana, The Addams Family, Grand Canyon, Wyatt Earp. His remarkable resume says it all; the one totally technical award I think deserves to be given, to a man who's been nominated five times but never has won.

Ned Beatty, actor. KEY FILMS: Deliverance, Nashville, White Lightning, All The President's Men, Network, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Silver Streak, Gator, Superman, Superman II, Wise Blood, Friendly Fire, 1941, Back to School, The Big Easy, Hear My Song, Rudy, Cookie's Fortune, Spring Forward, Sweet Land, The Walker, Charlie Wilson's War, The Killer Inside Me, Toy Story 3, Rango. I liked how the Academy opened up the Special Oscar field last year to include an essential character actor like Eli Wallach. If they were going to do the same sort of thing this go round, I'd like to submit consideration for another great American actor who's rarely gotten his due.

For the Thalberg award (which goes to producers alone), I'd go for either the Weinsteins, Scott Rudin, Lawrence Bender, or Ted Hope. For the Jean Hersholt Award, for humanitarian effort, I'd nominate George Clooney, Sean Penn, or Angelina Jolie.