San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Billy Wilder and Film Noir

I just thought of something. One of my favorite film directors is Billy Wilder, and the main reason for this is that he is so versatile. He could do drama. He could do comedy. He could do could do film noir. He could do a courtroom drama or a war movie, but more importantly he could move freely between these genres and mix and match as the story demands.

Often what makes a Billy Wilder movie great is they way it touches on many genres. Some Like It Hot is not just a comedy, it's also a drama and a gangster movie all rolled into one. And it probably says more about sex and gender roles than many films would for years to come.

If you asked me about the quintessential film noir, I would have to say The Maltese Falcon, but running a close second would have to be Double Indemnity. Both are great examples of films noir. In a way, I think I prefer, Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson lends a level of humanity that is somewhat lacking in The Maltese Falcon, but at the same time Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson are every bit as corrupt or corrupted as anyone in any film noir ever.

But let's look at some of his other films, ones that you may not think of as film noir.

*** Warning Spoilers Ahead ***


Sunset Boulevard is a drama about a down and out screenwriter, not really a film noir or is it?  William Holden is no criminal unless you count trying to keep his car from getting repossessed, but there are lies and betrayal, done, not out of greed or avarice, but out of love or at least empathy. Oh yeah, and you do have Holden face-down in the pool at the end.

Ace in the Hole is newspaper story about a reporter who will do anything to get back on top and the media circus that erupts around a trapped miner in a cave-in. The miner doesn't do very well, not as the result of lust or greed but for a byline. The end result is the same. No film noir there. Right?

Stalag 17 is a war movie about a scammer/borderline con man POW, who is framed for something he didn't do. The real traitor is a trusted member of the team flourishing in the midst of the other POWs. It's a war movie, right. Film noir is something totally different.

Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama, but what happens. A man on the fringes of society kills a woman for her money and uses his wife as an alibi. Then ultimately he betrays his wife for another woman and gets his just desserts. Okay, that one sounds a bit more like film noir, but you don't really think about it because of the distraction of the trial.

Billy Wilder films are rarely just one thing. They take comedy and turns it into a drama. They take the elements of film noir and throw them into a drama or newspaper movie or a war movie or courtroom drama. And the end result is often much more than the sum of the parts.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Pitch Forks and Torches, Don't Count on It.

We have a lot of problems in this country. I'm going to look at one of them, but before I start I want to look at problems in general and how they get solved. Let's say your problem is you want to lose 50 pounds, a problem that I'm sure a lot of people can relate to.

First, I want to look at how you do not solve this problem. You do not solve the problem by doing nothing. The only makes most problems get worse. You do not decide that it is too soon to start solving the problem, that there needs to be a grieving period for the 50 pounds you want to lose. You do not solve the problem by blaming it on something else, like the NFL, players taking a knee are disrespecting your desire to lose weight.

To solve the problem of 50 extra pounds, you need to take steps. Say the first step is taking a 15 minute walk everyday. You do that for six months, and you lose 15 pounds and feel a lot better, but you still want to get rid of the other 35 pounds. The second step might be to stop eating fried food and eat more fruits and vegetables. Maybe that gets you there. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you need a third step or a fourth and so on to get to where you want to be. The point is you need to start somewhere.

With the massacre in Las Vegas, let's look at the problem of assault rifles. We've seen how much death and devastation that can be caused by one person with these weapons. In the 1930s, there was a similar problem with machine guns, which were legal at the time. The machine gun was the weapon of choice for high-profile criminals, like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson. Police often armed with only pistols were completely outgunned.

How did America address this problem? Did they make sure that every law enforcement officer in the nation was issued a machine gun? No. Did they decide that the best way to stop a bad guy with a machine gun was a good guy with a machine gun, so that Old Man Johnson and Miss Simpson could take on the Bonnie and Clydes of this world. No.

Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. Though not entirely banning the weapons, the NFA regulated certain types of weapons, requiring extensive background checks including fingerprints and photographs, and regulated how they were sold, transferred, and transported. In addition, these weapons were taxed at a prohibitively high rate of $200 (over $3600 in 2017 dollars). The NFA covered machine guns (guns that can fire more than once with a single trigger pull), short-barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, silencers, destructive devices, such as hand grenades and explosive missiles, and non-shotgun firearms with bores larger than 0.5 inches, and certain other weapons such as cane guns and umbrella guns. I'm sure that machine guns did not disappear after the NFA was passed, but in time, law enforcement in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s didn't have to worry about criminals wielding machine guns like they had in the early 1930s.

Fast forward to now, the AR-15 assault rifle is the civilian version of the military M16 rifle. The AR-15 is equipped with a 30-round clip and is semiautomatic, meaning you can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger. This comes out to about three rounds a second, though most people will not be able to maintain three trigger pulls per second for an extended period of time. Assuming two trigger pulls per second and 5 seconds to change 30-round clips, an average person could fire 90 rounds per second from an AR-15 without any modifications. Think about someone shooting 90 times a minute in a crowded shopping mall or at a sporting event. How many people could be killed and injured in that one minute with those 90 shots?

The M16 military version is fully automatic and fires 700-950 rounds per minute. With modifications, an AR-15 can be made to fire at much higher rates. In addition to things like 100-round clips, which would save the time reloading, devices such as hand cranks and bump fire stocks, can easily make an AR-15 fire similar to a machine gun. These are fully legal aftermarket accessories that almost anyone could install. You don't need to be a gunsmith to do it. According to The Washington Post, at least, a dozen of the 23 guns that were recovered from Stephen Paddock's Las Vegas hotel room were modified to fire like a machine gun. Here are two of these devices that can do this:

Bump fire stock (this was specifically mentioned):



Hand crank (not mentioned, but I included it because it is a very cheap and simple device that can make an AR-15 fire like a machine gun):




According to CNN, the Las Vegas shooting lasted 9 to 11 minutes. In that time 58 people were killed and over 500 injured by gunfire and trying to escape the scene. Now, I'm not a gun person, but my older brother is. I can understand that if you like shooting guns, things like a bump fire stock would make it a whole lot more fun to do so, but these devices effectively make machine guns legal and allowed a psycho to unleash this much carnage in roughly 10 minutes. 

I live in California, where assault rifles were banned in 1989. My brother is kind of a redneck, and he bought an assault rifle before the ban went into effect. He has never committed a crime with his guns. He always kept his guns locked up, mostly because he didn't want his kids shooting the neighbor kids or vice versa but also because his guns were worth a lot of money.

My brother retired to Maui about three years ago. He now spends most of his time paddle boarding, roller skating, and taking pictures of the sunset (he posts them on Facebook all the time). I honestly don't know whether he still has his guns. I'm guessing he still has at least some of them. That's right. My red-neck gun-toting brother now spends most of his time paddle boarding and taking pictures of the sunset. He's also pro-union. Ain't America grand?

Now, if we banned assault rifles and things like bump stocks tomorrow. Not gonna happen, but let's say we did. That doesn't do anything to prevent more mass shootings with assault weapons already out there, but like the 15-minute walk, it's a start. Maybe 20 years from now, things would be safer. Banning assault rifles also does nothing to prevent shootings with other types of weapons. Again, it's a start. The first step of many. I honestly don't see anything happening. The government has its head so far up the NRA's butt, they can tell whether they need to floss more often. 

As far as I know, my brother and I don't agree on gun control. I  can't imagine he's done an about-face on the issue in the last few years, though the sunset thing does give me pause. We do agree on a lot of things. My brother is not a fan of the government. I'm not either. For both of us, it's because the government does not care about ordinary people. They care about big corporations, the very rich, and special interest groups like the NRA. 

My brother is always talking about how he can't believe people don't take to the streets with pitchforks and torches. This is something else that my  brother and I disagree on. It wouldn't surprise me if people took to the streets, but it won't be with pitchforks and torches. It will be with guns, lots and lots of guns. Maybe, the government should think about whether it's a good idea to ignore the needs of the vast majority people while giving them almost complete unfettered access to guns. It just doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy to me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Charade Chord Melody Solo Tabs

My take on the Theme to Charade for ukulele. In the video, I probably don't play it exactly the same as the tab, but the tab will get you there.


Tabs:
Charade Tab pdf

Hit a Major Milestone

The other day I hit a major milestone. My mother-in-law had her 94th birthday. That's not the milestone. That's just why it happened. We were taking her out to celebrate. The kids wanted to have breakfast in the middle of the day, so we went to IHOP. It was kind of cool. With picking up my daughter from school, we got there about 3:00, and the place was almost entirely empty.

Now, I've been trying to get back on my diet, so I wanted to find something on the menu that was fairly low calorie. I looked over the menu, and it turns out the short stack of three buttermilk pancakes was 430 calories, about two thirds the calories of any of the sandwiches. Yeah, I know that doesn't include butter and the boysenberry syrup. Shut up. Further, it turns out the short stack was on the 55 or older Senior Menu. 

I just turned 55 last month, and though, it pains me to admit I'm a senior, I'm also out of work. And cheap, so I ordered the short stack off the Senior Menu. While I was enjoying my low calorie pancakes with generous amounts of whipped butter and syrup, shut up, I noticed something. The music they were playing was music that I listened to as a kid. 

This is not really new. It's been going on for a long time. When I was a kid, the music they played in places like in IHOP was Muzak, soft pop songs played with strings and piano, so it wouldn't offend anybody. Muzak went away some time ago. Actually, it probably didn't. Some quick research tells me that it just switched to playing real music about twenty years ago. 

I honestly don't know how it works. I know that when it first switched over, it was a mix of 50s through 70s pop/rock. For the last about ten years, it seems to have switched over to 80s music. In IHOP, it was all 70s, like we were listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 soundtrack. Maybe, there are different channels. 

Though getting old sucks, at least I can take solace in hearing music I like in places like IHOP. To be honest, the age I don't mind so much. It's just a number. What bothers me is being overweight. Hence, the diet and my low-calorie pancakes. Shut up.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock – A One-Trick Pony?

Ever since college, my favorite film director had been Alfred Hitchcock. In recent years, I began to think that maybe Billy Wilder might have supplanted The Master of Suspense, because Wilder was so versatile. Billy Wilder could do film noir. He could do comedy. He could do drama, war movies, and even one of my favorite courtroom dramas. I know I already mentioned comedy, but he could do comedy with a sense of tragedy and pathos like no one else, whereas Alfred Hitchcock seemed like kind of a one-trick pony.

Now, when I say, one-trick pony, I mean this is the absolute best sense of the word. To be truly successful as a one-trick pony, two things need to happen. First, it needs to a hell of a good trick, and second you need to do that one trick better than anyone else. This describes Hitchcock to a tee.

Over the last six weeks, I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class at https://learn.canvas.net/courses/1679. In college, back in the early 1980s, I also took a class on Alfred Hitchcock. While my college class was good, I'm getting a lot more out of the 50 Years of Hitchcock class. For one thing, in my college course, the professor wanted to see you parrot his ideas back to him. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it's more here's what I think is important, you look at it and see if you agree or if you have anything new to add.

Another big difference is the technology. In the early 1980s, VCRs existed, but as a student, living on top ramen and macaroni and cheese a lot of the time, an expensive VCR was not in the cards. Also, while VCRs existed, large screen TVs did not. In class, we would watch the movies on 16 mm film. For the most part, you got one shot at it. You can't really fast forward, rewind, and pause a 16 mm film. Okay, you might be able to, but you would need to really know the film and have a projectionist, who really knows what he or she is doing.

With films on DVR and DVD and clips online that you can watch over and over again, you can really study them. You can watch them different times to look for different things, like objects in the background or just listening to the music and sound effects or even with the sound off to get just the information in the visuals.

Now back to my original premise, Alfred Hitchcock as a one-trick pony, that opinion hasn't really changed. What has changed is my appreciation of that one trick. While he is mostly known for suspense thrillers, he also made a handful of comedies, and most of his suspense thrillers had elements of comedy. He made a handful of movies that are best described as horror, but incorporated elements of his suspense thrillers, and often the suspense thrillers had elements of horror.

He learned his craft in the silent era, and often he would have long sequences in his sound films that advanced the story without the use of dialog. He used experimental and subjective techniques to manipulate the audience and explore the psyche of the characters. His films featured ordinary people as protagonists and sophisticated cultured villains. His films looked at marital relationships, extramarital relationship, parent-child relationships, and as much as was possible at the time homosexual relationships. Even his silent and early sound films that are often dismissed as un-Hitchcockian have elements he returns to in his masterworks:
  •  In Downhill, a man helps a friend, is betrayed by the woman he loves, and ultimately loses everything including his sanity. Isn't that more or less what happens in Vertigo.
  • In The Manxman, a woman marries a man she doesn't love out of a sense of obligation when she loves another. Isn't that kind of what happens in Notorious?
  • The Farmer's Wife, Rich and Strange, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are romantic/sex comedies, but aren't Rear Window and The Trouble With Harry romantic/sex comedies with a dead body?
That one trick is built on a whole bag of little tricks, and that bag kept on getting bigger throughout his career. Though most of his films were suspense thrillers, they integrated elements of espionage, romantic comedy, murder, betrayal, and mental illness, but all bore his personal stamp. In looking at that one trick or at Alfred Hitchcock as a one trick pony, I think it's important to ask yourself, did he repeat himself. Examine the following:
  • In 1927, The Lodger examined a serial killer and the preoccupation that society and the media have with serial killers. Later, he would re-examine the serial killer in Shadow of a Doubt, pulling him out of the dark alleys of London and bringing him into for broad daylight of small-town America. As the Production Code broke down, he brought the serial killer into the modern era with Psycho.
  • In the 1930s, he virtually invented the espionage movie with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. He would return to the spy thriller in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Notorious, and North by Northwest. In the 1960s, his somewhat less than thrilling Cold War spy thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz, treated espionage realistically in era ripe with the pure fantasy of the 007 films. Even though unsuccessful, Torn Curtain and Topaz have moments of brilliance, such as the deaths of the East German agent in Torn Curtain and Karin Dor in Topaz.
  • In 1944, Lifeboat experimented with a film set entirely on a small boat. Later Rope would all be set in a single apartment, this time adding the technical challenge, having the entire film shot as if in one continuous shot. In Rear Window, he would create a masterpiece with intricate subplots set entirely in one apartment, and what could be viewed out of the window of that apartment.
  • In 1948, Rope features a pair of gay men who committed murder for the intellectual thrill of doing so. He would later revisit homosexual subtext in Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).
  • In Saboteur (1943), he created an enormous model of the Statue of Liberty for the last scene where Norman Lloyd falls to his death. In 1954, Rear Window used an enormous set with 31 apartments, many of which were fully furnished with working electricity, modeled after real apartments in Greenwich Village, New York. Later, he would use enormous set pieces and matte paintings to replicate Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. 
  • Often Hitchcock is criticized for his use of rear projection, but what about the truly innovative uses? In the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent (1940), he projected the footage of the ocean rushing up on the back of a screen made of rice paper in front of the cockpit set. Then on cue, he had hundreds of gallons of water crash through the screen and into the cockpit set to simulate the plane crashing into the ocean. In 1963, The Birds became his most technically demanding film ever,  with the film's final shot being composed of 32 separate film elements.
Yes, he often returns to the same or similar material, but is he repeating himself. I say, no. Not only did he stay ahead of trends in his films, he created them. In the late-1950s and early-1960s, when films like Desk Set and That Touch of Mink were using computers for comic effect, making boop-boop-a-doo noises and spitting punch cards on the floor, Hitchcock was using a real computer to create graphics for the credits of Vertigo and a predecessor to the modern electronic synthesizer to process the bird sounds in The Birds

In 1946, 13 months after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Notorious was released featuring Nazis in Brazil trying to refine uranium ore. Technically, Hitchcock considered the uranium a MacGuffin, an insignificant plot detail that just as easily could be changed to industrial diamonds. Yet I find it significant that the atomic age was just over a year old, and he was already using it as a plot device.

I purposely left off Frenzy in the above. I did so because it helps bring me back to something I said at the very beginning of this piece. I have often heard that the period between 1967 and 1977 being a renaissance in American film. This is the era that gave us Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The French Connection, Deliverance, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alfred Hitchcock's best film in this period is clearly, Frenzy. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it was mentioned numerous times that Francois Truffaut called Frenzy a young man's film. Hitchcock made it when he was in his 70s. When I look at Frenzy, it seems perfectly at home with the other films of the 1960s and 1970s I just mentioned. 

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned Billy Wilder, but when I look at Billy Wilder's later films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Front Page, and Fedora (I haven't seen Avanti! or Buddy Buddy), I don't feel like they are at home with other modern films in the way that Frenzy is. I know that this is an unfair comparison, but now that I've had a chance look at Hitchcock with fresh eyes, I think I'll take Hitchcock's one trick over Billy Wilder's versatility. Sorry, Billy, I love you, man, but Alfred Hitchcock is the man.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Flash in the Upstairs Rear Window Apartment

I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class on https://learn.canvas.net/courses/1679. One of the features of the class is a Daily Dose, a short clip from one of the films under study that is used to discuss certain aspects of the film. In one of the Daily Doses, the opening of Rear Window is shown. I have seen Rear Window somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and there is something I had never noticed until I watched the Daily Dose this morning. 

It occurs approximately 1:30 measured from when James Stewart's name appears in the opening credits (Stewart's name appears before the title and is the first text in the opening credits). I chose this timing because I figured that different versions of the film would have different company logos tacked onto the front of the film. Anyway, at this point the film there is a slow pan of the apartments outside Jame Stewart's Rear Window. During the pan, there is a flash in the window, diagonally above the window where the couple is sleeping on the fire escape. 

I know that the apartments on the set were furnished and had working lights. It's possible that at just that moment a light bulb burned out. Possibly this was noticed and possibly not.  Maybe it was noticed but by the time they noticed it was too late to retake the shot, but I like to think that nothing in an Alfred Hitchcock film happens by accident. So if that flash was not an accident, that means that possibly there was another photographer living in the apartment across the way from James Stewart.

Now what would a photographer running a studio out of his or her apartment in Greenwich Village in 1954 be doing as a means of support? Taking portraits of the neighborhood kiddies? Well, considering there aren't many children in the neighborhood, it seems more likely that the other photographer might be doing something else that paid a little better, like girly pictures. Still, this seemed like a bit of a stretch, but you never know with Hitchcock. 

Then I decided to watch a little further. At  approximately 3:50 to 4:10 (again from James Stewart's name in the opening credits), while James Stewart is talking on the phone with his editor, you see this apartment again. Two women come out on the balcony wearing robes. They lie down on the balcony deck, and you see them drape their robes over the railing above the brick wall that borders that balcony. No indication is given as to whether the women are wearing bathing suits or birthday suits, but they are scantily clad enough to make a passing helicopter come what seems dangerously close to the roof of the building. So does that make the girly pictures thing seem a little less far fetched?




Motivated by this I decided to rewatch the whole film again in fast forward, looking for that window. It is shown again a number of times, but I didn't see anything that would lend more credence to my girly pictures theory. That window appears when the dog is killed. Two man-woman couples are standing in that window, when the woman is yelling about her dog. Nothing indicates that anything unusual is going on. Just two couples having dinner or whatever. Possibly, I'm just imagining things. Possibly, it is Hitchcock's private joke to himself. Likely, we will never know. 

But let's just say that I am right about this girly pictures thing. That means that the whole time James Stewart was obsessing over Miss Torso and worrying about Miss Lonelyheart's love life. He should have been looking in that top floor apartment, where the real action was going on. Then again, if he did that, Raymond Burr might have got away with murder. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon – Body Heat




This post is part of the 'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven's ESSAYS from the COUCH.



I first saw Body Heat in college in a film class. In this class, the professor compared and contrasted classic films with contemporary films, like Casablanca with The Graduate (it was the early 1980s, so The Graduate was still considered contemporary). I don't remember all the film pairs, but I know Double Indemnity and Body Heat was one of them. The comparison of the two is pretty natural. Per IMDB, Halliwells Film Guide called Body Heat an uncredited revamp of Double Indemnity, and The Thriller Film Guide said that the "plot (although not credited as such) is a virtual reworking of Double Indemnity."


Though the basic concept (man and woman conspire to kill her older husband for the money) is identical, Body Heat works just fine. If anything, it takes the idea further and to a much darker place. As neo-noir goes, it's one of the best and for me, Body Heat holds its own with Double Indemnity quite well.

I hadn't seen Body Heat in probably 20 years until I watched it again a couple of weeks ago. I was confident that I would not be disappointed, and I was right. The film was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, a name that looked familiar to me when I saw the opening credits. He also directed, The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon, and others, and wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, yes, the good Star Wars movie. Body Heat was his directorial debut, and at the time, he was afraid he might not get another chance. Thus, he wanted to do a modern film noir, like his favorite classics, Double Indemnity, The Asphalt Jungle, and Out of the Past. Suffice it to say, he succeeded.


Wikipedia calls Body Heat a "neo-noir erotic thriller," and there is no denying the raw sexuality of the film. Even today, I would call it one of the most erotic films I've ever seen. It's about as explicit as a film can get and still retain an R rating. Director Lawrence Kasdan was concerned about the sexuality and wanted to make sure it didn't come off as a male sex fantasy. He hired a female editor, Carol Littleton, the first of many collaborations between the pair. The sexuality is integral to the story and is deftly handled. It doesn't come across as gratuitous. Okay, maybe it does, but you won't care.

The cast consists of at-the-time mostly unknown actors, Kathleen Turner's film debut, and William Hurt's third film role. Though Ted Danson had been getting regular TV work, Body Heat precedes Cheers by by over a year, so he was largely unknown as well. The only well-known member of the cast is Richard Crenna as the ill-fated husband.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a slimy lawyer, not a slimy insurance agent, but to carry on with the Double Indemnity reference, he plays Ned Racine way slimier than Fred MacMurray. In fact, the Ned Racine almost seems to embrace his sliminess. Fun fact: Body Heat was produced by The Ladd Company. Alan Ladd, Jr., made one demand of the film, that William Hurt shave his mustache. He thought it made Hurt look slimy. He even had a rep at Warner Brothers threaten Lawrence Kasdan that if the first dailies came in, and Hurt still had the mustache, it would be a big problem. Lawrence Kasdan was uncertain what to do but ultimately decided to ignore it. To his relief, he never heard anything more of it. The mustache does make William Hurt look slimy, and it's perfect.

The Ned Racine character is portrayed as a womanizer from the very start. In the very first scene, he is standing covered in sweat in his boxers, as the woman behind him is getting dressed. When he meets Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker character the sparks fly. The dialog in Body Heat is crisp and funny like you would expect in a film noir, but between Ned and Matty, it crackles. The chemistry between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner is palpable.

Kathleen Turner wanted the part of Matty from the very beginning, but as her professional credits were mostly a TV soap opera she couldn't get an audition at first. She was working out of New York at the time, and when she returned to L.A. to audition for a different movie four months, she found out that they still had not cast Mattie and finally was able to get an audition. Lawrence Kasdan liked her immediately and said that when he closed his eyes, she sounded exactly like he had heard the character in his head. Her sultry voice is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, and it sure doesn't hurt that at 26, Kathleen Turner was insanely hot.

Again, there's the temptation to compare Matty to Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. If anything, Matty is better, or worse. There are no cracks in the veneer. At the beginning of Double Indemnity, Walter Neff sees through Phyllis and goes in anyway. For Ned Racine, he doesn't have an inkling until it's too late, and later, as the layers fall away, and he sees how smart and manipulative and bad she is, he can't even do anything about it. He just gets more and more screwed. There isn't even a chink in her armor, not a tear or furrowed brow, until possibly the very very end. 

In Body Heat, Ted Danson plays Ned's friend and a young assistant district attorney with a penchant for dancing like Fred Astaire. They never explain this. It is just a quirk that he has like chewing gum. In fact, William Hurt talks about it with another character, that he finds it weird that he's so good at it. While all of the dialog is smart and funny, Ted Danson's character gets many of the best lines.

Best known among the cast at the time was Richard Crenna as Matty's older husband, who only comes home on the weekends. They leave a lot of Crenna's character up to the imagination. He is unrespectable in a respectable sort of way. He says he was/still is a lawyer, but no longer practices. He is involved with real-estate investments, but you get the feeling he is a gangster but up high enough that he no longer needs to get his hands dirty unless he really needs to. There is an impression of danger about him, like he would kick your ass or shoot you if you messed with him.


Rounding out the cast are Mickey Rourke as an ex-con arsonist/client of William Hurt and J.A. Preston as a police detective and friend of both Hurt and Danson. Mickey Rourke is only in two scenes, but both are great. Though he doesn't know what Ned is up to, only that it involves arson, he tries talk him out of it and even offers to do it for him knowing that William Hurt would make a mess of it. Mickey Rourke tries to protect him, because he owes Ned (wouldn't be on the street without him). He knows that whatever Ned is doing, the reward can't justify the risk. Rourke has a speech about crime that hits about as hard as Edward G. Robinson's actuarial table speech in Double Indemnity does. 

J.A. Preston has made a career out of playing detectives and the like.  He is cynical and tough, but mostly an honest cop, who cares about William Hurt, even though he considers him a screwup. When he is he is put in charge of investigating Richard Crenna's murder, he too tries to warn William Hurt about not doing anything stupid, but by this time, he's in so far over his head, there's nothing he can do. Preston has a bulldog intensity and uses it to try to clear William Hurt, but too many loose ends have unraveled.

Body Heat is a dark movie. It picks up where Double Indemnity left off and takes it about three steps further. There are some great touches, nods to Body Heat's film noir roots. Matty gives Ned a fedora hat even though they were hardly in style in 1981. There's a great shot of him trying it on by looking at his reflection in the car window. In one scene, Matty stomps out a cigarette as she gets out of her car, and it just makes you go weak inside. My favorite little touch happens right before, they commit the deed. Ned is on the street and a very unusual car and driver go by, serving as a surreal and ridiculous warning to him. If you watch close, you'll see a number of great noir touches running throughout the film.

Body Heat is set in Florida in the sweltering heat, but the actual production was anything but. The original plan was have the film set and shot on location on the Jersey Shore. A Screen Actor's Guild strike delayed production by about four months. It was snowing in New Jersey by the time they could shoot. The best alternative was Florida, but it turned out to be the coldest winter Florida had seen in years. For nighttime shoots, the actors had to suck ice cubes to keep their breath from showing. The breeze that Matty complains doesn't make things cooler was practically gale force winds that had to be blocked with a truck to make it look like just a breeze. The sweat that covers the actors had to be spritzed on, and the actors were constantly cold from being wet all the time. It works though, I never would have known had I not watched the DVD special features.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the score by John Barry was excellent. He called the main title theme a jazz ballad with strident piano chords and low-end strings. He was going for the feel of a Humphrey Bogart film, and it works very well. I love 1980s music and electronic music, but there's a tendency for films of the period to embrace it, and the films seem very dated in retrospect. Sticking with a classic feel, Body Heat is timeless and perfect. Another tendency at the time was load films up with pop songs for the sake of selling a soundtrack. That would be have been all wrong. There is just one pop song, Bob Seger, "Feel Like a Number." It works perfect in the one scene, but then we are done.

I guess I should just come out and say it. I love Double Indemnity. It's one of my all-time favorite films. I love Body Heat too. If I had to choose one, I would pick Double Indemnity, but that doesn't take anything away from Body Heat. It's still as great film. The premise of the two films are the same, but Body Heat tells a unique story and places it in a modern context, while embracing the film noir roots it springs from. I could put Body Heat up against any classic film noir or neo-noir, and it holds its own.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much vs The Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock made the film, The Man Who Knew Much twice:
  • The Man Who Knew Much (1934) – Made in England, and starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, and Peter Lorre. Hitchcock considered this version the work of a talented amateur. For simplicity, I'll refer to this version as simply, 1934.

  • The Man Who Knew Much (1956) – Made in Hollywood, and starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Hitchcock considered this version the work of a professional. I'll refer to this version as 1956.

I always considered 1956 to be far superior, but I now realize that a lot of my problems with 1934 stem from seeing it on poor quality copies almost every time I watched it. Having recently seen a good copy of 1934, I've come to realize that I like both quite a bit. I still prefer 1956, but not by nearly as much as I had previously thought.

Between the two films, the basic story is the same but the way they are executed is enough different that watching one does not ruin your enjoyment of the other. Probably, the biggest difference is the ending, 1934 ends with a running gun battle, whereas, 1956 ends with 127 verses of the song, "Que Sera Sera." Remind me again, why I like 1956 better. Oh right, Jame Stewart and Doris Day.

Admittedly, the above is a bit facetious, but both film have their strengths and few if any weaknesses: 

  • 1934:
    • The pacing is excellent. It's a roller coaster ride, and even if there are parts that might seem a little hard to swallow, by the time you could even think that, you're already onto the next scene.
    • Peter Loree is a great actor, and he is kind of the prototypical Hitchcock villain, smart, refined, funny, and likable. If anything, he might be too likable, you kind of hate to see him go. 1956 doesn't really have a villian. Actually, it probably does, but I don't remember a thing about him. The couple that kidnap James Stewart and Doris Day's son are lower level, they take orders from someone, but I couldn't tell you who he was or anything about him. 
  • 1956:
    • Though 1956 doesn't have the break-neck pace of 1934 and adds scenes not in the original version, I never feel that it drags at all. The scenes that are added, though goofy in some respects, are hilarious, so you let it slide. The scene in the taxidermist shop and the friends waiting in their hotel for like 10 hours are stupid but in a fun way. Even Doris Day singing "Que Sera Sera" for 20 minutes still works  (okay, it wasn't that long).
    • Doris Day and James Stewart. For Doris Day, this is the movie that convinced me that she could really act, not just sing and do comedy, and James Stewart, it just doesn't get better than that. In 1934, I don't feel the anguish of the parents. That's what 1956 is all about, well that and the comedy. 
Both 1934 and 1956 are very good but for entirely different reasons.  I think Hitchcock is being too hard on himself with the talented amateur comment. Admittedly, Alfred Hitchcock made some films that are not good. 1934 is not one of them. It holds up well among any of the better Hitchcock films. I do still like 1956 better but 1934 is very good.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Summer Movie Blogathon Hits the Beach

Put on your baggies and wax up your rear-projection surfboard, it's almost time for the Summer Movie Blogathon, June 24 and 25 (first weekend of Summer).

Posts from June 25

Posts from June 24

Posts before June 24


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We've been a little generous with our definition of Summer as indicated below. The only rule is no repeats on movies titles, first come first served. If interested, post a comment saying what movie you want to do below. Examples of qualifying films include the following.


Movies with Summer in the title:


Examples:
  • 500 Hundred Days of Summer  [Taken]
  • The Endless Summer
  • Suddenly Last Summer
  • Long Hot Summer
  • In the Good Old Summertime [Taken]
  • Indian Summer [Taken]
  • Summer of '42 [Taken]
  • Summer of Sam
  • Corvette Summer, they can't all be Casablanca, folks

Movies about the beach, surfing, or summer sports:

Examples:
  • Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, [Muscle Beach Party is Taken] ...
  • Gidget
  • Ride the Wild Surf
  • Dog Town and Z Boys [Taken, unless someone else wants it real bad]
  • Deliverance
  • Without a Paddle
  • Major League
  • Bull Durham

Movies about summer or hot weather:



Examples:
  • Stand by Me
  • Grease
  • Dazed and Confused
  • American Graffiti [Taken]
  • Seven Year Itch
  • Weekend at Bernie's

Movies about vacation/camping or set in amusement park/resort area:


Examples:
  • Coney Island
  • Roman Holiday [Taken] Change of plans, Roman Holiday now open
  • National Lampoon's Vacation
  • Meatballs
  • Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
  • Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation
  • Euro-Trip
  • Woman on the Run

Summer blockbusters (to qualify, must have been released between April and September):


Examples:
  • Jaws
  • Men in Black
  • Independence Day  [Taken]
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark  [Taken]
  • Ghostbusters [Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II are Taken]
Want to be involved? Post a comment, saying what film you want to cover.

Here's what we have so far:

I've made the above graphics to promote the blogathon. Please feel free to Save as and use as needed.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Summer Movie Blogathon – Dogtown and Z Boys

This post is part of the Summer Movie Blogathon hosted by yours truly. 



The blogathon is broken into categories. Dogtown and Z Boys falls in the Movies about the Beach, Surfing, or Summer Sports category. Dogtown and Z Boys is a 2001 documentary about skateboarding and an influential group of skaters, the Z Boys, named for the Zephyr Surf and Skateboard teams of the 1970s. The film is broken into several parts and uses interviews of those involved as well modern skaters and musicians like Tony Hawk and Henry Rollins to tell the story of this time and place and its influence on skateboarding and culture.


The interviews are great. Some of the people, in particular, Skip Engblom, co-owner of the Zephyr Surf Shop, and Zephyr team skater Wenzel Ruml are just hilarious. The film is narrated by Sean Penn who had lived and surfed in and near Dogtown in his younger days. The story of the Z Boys is mostly told the skaters themselves along vintage film and still photography. There's a great Grammy-nominated soundtrack, featuring everything from Jan and Dean, Herb Alpert, and Jimi Hendrix to Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd to Devo, The Stooges, and The Pretenders. The music is seamlessly integrated to what they are talking about.

Also there's a great editing trick that Dogtown and Z Boys uses extensively. A lot of the time when people are speaking, they tend to ramble. Normally, you would see a jump cut to where they get to the point. In this film, they fast forward the video for a split second to do the same. It's kind of a neat and subtle effect. I see it used all the time now, but this is the first film I ever saw it used. Director and one of the Z Boy skaters, Stacey Peralta, even uses the technique on himself in spots.

The film opens with some background on Dogtown, a rundown area consisting of the South Santa Monica, Venice, and Ocean Park beach communities in Los Angeles. Originally, the area had developed as a resort community with several amusement parks, but by the late 1960s, all of them had closed leaving the remnants of dilapidated piers and amusement park rides to rust in the surf. According to Skip Engblom, it was, "... the last great seaside slum." 

Peggy Oki, the only female Z Boy
By the early 1970s, the sport of surfing was in the midst of the short board revolution. Gone were the days of hanging ten and nose riding, surfers were moving to shorter boards to do maneuvers impossible on the longboards of the 1960s. In mainstream surfing, it was mostly flowers and sunsets, but for the boards coming out of Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom's Zephyr Surf Shop, they embraced the aesthetic of car culture and graffiti art. Also an aggressive localism developed in the surf as Dogtown surfers fought to protect their turf from outsiders. This gives a good background on the environment in which these skaters were brought up. Many of them came from broken homes, and Zephyr team gave many of them the structure they lacked at home.

Dogtown and Z Boys then gives a brief history of skateboarding, how it developed and became a national fad in the mid-1960s only to crash and almost disappear as fast as it appeared. Early skateboards used either clay or steel wheels. A tiny rock on the sidewalk could send you flying of the board, making them dangerous and causing many cities to ban them. Then in the early 1970s, the revolutionary urethane wheel made it possible to do things unimaginable on the stone-age clay wheels.

In Dogtown, the next wave of surfers and skateboarders emerged to take the radical approach of influential surfers like Larry Bertleman and apply it to the concrete on a skateboard. Near Dogtown, there were a number of public schools built on hillsides or in canyons with large concrete banks leading into the black top, the perfect spot for taking surf moves to the asphalt. 


Dogtown and Z Boys then looks at the birth of vertical skating. In the mid-1970s, a drought in Southern California caused many home owners to drain their pools, the perfect environment for this new approach to skateboarding. Once the Z Boys found some pools to skate, they knew others were out there. They didn't have permission from the owners. They just came and skated a pool until the cops showed up and then moved onto the next. Often the pools were partially filled with water, and they brought pumps and hoses to drain the pools, so that they could be ridden. 

In 1975, a national championship was held in Del Mar. Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom built skateboards for their team and entered them in the contest. This was mainstream skateboarding's introduction to the Z Boys. They skated like no one else there. Whereas other skaters were doing tricks like handstands and nosewheelies, the Dogtown guys were skating like the hottest surfers from the 1970s. Though their style was unique and innovative, the judges largely gave better scores to the more traditional skaters. Still, their skating drew the notice of a burgeoning skateboard industry.

At the time a newly revamped SkateBoarder magazine started publishing photos and articles about the Z Boys written/photographed by Craig Stecyk, the photojournalist and artist behind the innovative look of Zephyr surfboards. As a result, the Dogtown skaters became instant celebrities, and other skateboard  companies offered the Z Boys contracts to ride for them. The Zephyr team disbanded, and financial issues caused the Zephyr surf shop to close. Of the Zephyr skateboard team, the top skaters were, Stacey Peralta, Jay Adams, and Tony Alva, who all took different paths in skateboarding and life. 

Of the three, Stacey Peralta (who directed and co-wrote the film with Craig Stecyk) was the most responsible. He saw professional skateboarding as a once-in-lifetime opportunity, and he was determined to milk it for all it was worth. He traveled the world, as an unofficial ambassador of skateboarding. Later as his skateboarding career was on the wane, he teamed with skateboard manufacturer George Powell to form Powell Peralta, and their skateboard team, the Bones Brigade, had a huge impact on skateboarding in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In addition, with the help of Craig Stecyk, Peralta produced a series of skate videos that virtually invented the concept of skateboard videos.


Stacey Peralta

Jay Adams was probably the most naturally gifted of the group, but had the most trouble with dealing with the notoriety of being a famous skateboarder. He just wanted to skate, but being sponsored meant showing up on time and having responsibility, and that seemed to freak him out. He made bad choices, like dropping out of school and got heavily involved in drugs. When the film was made in 2001, he was serving time in prison on drug-related charges. Jay Adams died of a heart attack in 2014 at the age of 53.


Jay Adams

Tony Alva was the rock star of the group. They said that all of the Z Boys had enormous egos, but Tony's ego was bigger than all of theirs combined. After riding briefly for another company, he did something unheard of at the time. He formed his own company. Now, in skateboarding, often the top skaters will leave their sponsors and form their own companies. Tony Alva was the first to do this. Also the marketing was as much about attitude as it was about skating. That too has almost become a standard in extreme sports. 


Tony Alva

Dogtown and Z Boys ends with a segment on the Dog Bowl, a pool where the Z Boys had their last and best sessions together as a group. The pool was in a Santa Monica home, and the owner's son was dying of cancer and asked his parents if they could drain the pool, so that his friends, the Z Boys, could skate it.  Here they could skate and not worry about the police. By this point, they were all professional skaters, but the environment gave them a chance to skate and push each other for the pure joy of doing so. 

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I actually have very complicated feelings about Dogtown and Z Boys. I have only one problem with the film and that one problem is also the one thing that makes the film work so well. Let me explain. I'm a skateboarder. I grew up reading SkateBoarder magazine. I saw the Z Boys at the time and was amazed by what they were doing. But they were not the only skaters out there. There were lots of great skaters, not among the Z Boys, who were doing things that in my eye seemed every bit as radical and innovative as what the Z Boys were doing. The film makes it seem like the entire skateboard world revolved around Dogtown. It didn't, though as a group, they were hugely influential. 

What makes a good documentary is the narrative. The narrative of Dogtown and Z Boys is the unique point in time, the Dogtown environment, and its influence on this group of skaters and the world as a whole. Because I was following skateboarding at the time, I know that Dogtown was one part of of a much larger scene, and while I would like to see Dogtown placed in a larger context of skateboarding as a whole, doing so would only dilute the film's narrative. 

Also at the time, generally speaking, I didn't like the Z Boys as much as other skaters. The main reason was that with them, it seem to be about attitude, and that bothered me. In particular, Tony Alva seemed to be all attitude, but to pull that off, you have to be good, and he was very good, and at a certain point in time, indisputably the best. I saw Tony Alva skate at the 1976 Hang Ten World Championship. It was in Carlsbad, North County, San Diego. I was 14, and my older brother took me. In the film, there are shots of Tony Alva in a white jumpsuit with a red arrow. That was from that contest. I'm not sure if this is the same contest where Alva won the overall (film says it was 1977). All I know was that when I saw him skate, Tony Alva placed second in the slalom behind Henry Hester. Alva hardly did slalom. Henry Hester and the other top slalom guys specialized in slalom. Tony Alva beat out the others and came very close to beating Hester. That's how good he was.

If I had to pick a favorite skater, it would be Stacey Peralta. He was a phenomenal skater with an incredible style, but what also made me like him was that he didn't seem to have the attitude of the rest of the Z Boys. He just let his skating speak for itself. Seeing Dogtown and Z Boys, I now understand where that attitude came from and how it molded the skaters coming from that scene. It really help me put it into perspective.

In sports like skateboarding and surfing, you tend to have three types of movies. First, you have surf films/skateboard films. These feature the best footage that the filmmakers can put together. If you're a surfer or a skateboarder, you love these. You could watch them all day. If you're not, you probably couldn't sit through the whole thing. Second, you have fictional films about the sport and the people who do it. We're talking about films like Ride the Wild Surf for surfing and Thrashin' for skateboarding. These rarely ever work very well. I can't think of one that I really like.

Finally, you have documentaries with a narrative strong enough to make them appeal to an audience not involved in the sport itself. For surfing, Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer was such a film. To be honest, Bruce Brown didn't set out to make a film about surfers following the summer as they traveled the world. He just wanted to make another surf movie about surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August taking a surf trip to South Africa. When the travel agent suggested that it was only marginally more expensive to take a trip around the world, Bruce Brown decided to go that route. The narrative of following summer by crossing the equator emerged as they were on the trip. It's that narrative, the adventures that Hynson and August have on the trip, and taking surfing to places and cultures that had never seen a surfboard that make into more than just a surf film, something even nonsurfers could watch and enjoy.

For a long time, there wasn't a film like The Endless Summer for skateboarding. Had Stacey Peralta made a film about skateboarding as a whole, skateboarders like me would have loved it, but it would have just been another skateboarding movie to everybody else. By focusing on the Dogtown narrative, that place, that point in time, and that group of skaters, Dogtown and Z Boys becomes something that anyone can watch and enjoy. For someone like me, who knows the bigger story, learning their story, who they were and what they went through, I can now appreciate and see beyond the attitude that to me overshadowed who and they were back then. 

Dogtown and Z Boys was entered in the Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award (in a tie with Good Scout) and the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It also won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and received other awards and nominations. This is a great film, and it's well worth the time to watch.