Friday, August 29, 2014

Three Classic Films, Big Screen, One Week

Okay, the one week might be pushing it. It started last Friday and ended last night Thursday. Seven days is probably more accurate, but you know what, seven days is a week, so that's what I'm going with. My last post was about how a local single screen movie theater from from the late 1940s had been saved from closing. Woohoo. In celebration, they had a week-long festival of films from the 60s and 70s. Of the eight films, they showed, there were three that I really wanted to see and  I actually got to see two of them (the third was playing the same night as another film I'd already bought tickets for.

First up, was The Godfather at the Ken Cinema. Great film. It's one of those films that I always watch when it comes on TV though I never go out of my way to watch it on DVD, even though I'm sure we own it. I had never seen it on the big screen, and that was a huge treat.

Next up, was The Wizard of Oz at the Arclight, La Jolla. This is the film that I had already bought tickets for and caused me to miss the other film I want to see Sorcerer. Still, an okay trade-off. I had wanted to see both Sorcerer and The Wizard of Oz at the TCM Film Festival, but had ended up wanting  to something else more. Kind of weird that both films would be playing opposite each other one night only the same night, but that's the way things work sometimes. I had seen The Wizard of Oz in the theater back in the 80s, but getting to see again, in the theater, a fresh restoration, not in 3D, sweet.

Finally, back to The Ken for The Great Escape. What a great movie. I definitely had never seen this in the theater. I tend to not be real big on War movies, but The Great Escape is one of my favorite exceptions. Of course, now I want to see Stalag 17 in the theater. 

I can't remember the last time I saw three movies in the theater in a week. Okay, TCM Film Festival, but that doesn't really count. Anyway, huge props to the two organizations that made it happen.

Landmark Theaters – Thank you for keeping The Ken up and running. I'm hoping that the 60s/70s film festival was successful enough to make you want to do more things like that again. It would be great to see things like maybe a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder (you did notice Stalag 17 above) Hint! Or maybe something like Screwball Comedies or Universal Monster movies. If it helps, I really want to see, Take Me to the River and A Letter to Momo. I don't think I would have even known about these, had I not been lured there for The Godfather and The Great Escape.

Arclight Theaters – Your Arclight Presents series rocks. Godzilla: The Japanese Original earlier this year and of course The Wizard of Oz were great. Hoping to squeeze in Ghostbusters this weekend, and Princess Mononoke and M next month.

Keep it coming.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Batman, Don Corleone, and Social Media Losing Their Shittedness

Seems like every now and then, something happens and all of Facebook friends decide to completely lose their shit all at once. Thinking back, it's happened twice in the last year or so. I try to stay out of these things unless I have vested interest.

The first was when the announced that Ben Affleck was going to play Batman.




My friends completely lost their minds over this. My thought was two words, Michael Keaton:

Oh, and two more words, Val Kilmer. We survived Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer Batmans. We'll survive Ben Affleck too. My friends take casting of Batman movies way too seriously. When they start making Batman movies that stand up to a single 22 minute of this:

Then I'll start taking Batman casting seriously.

The next time my Facebook circle of friends completely lost their collective minds was about four months ago when it was announced that the Ken Cinema would be closing. The Ken is one of the last remaining historic movie theaters in San Diego county (at least that still shows movies anyway). Online sources vary, but from what I gather, the Ken Cinema was opened in 1947. The building that houses it is older, 1912, about the same time that most of the houses in the neighborhood were built.

In the overall scheme of things, The Ken was not a grand movie palace from Golden Age of Cinema. It was, however, a nice neighborhood theater that had managed to survive as a single screen theater in the Cineplex era. As such, that made it kind of special, I was sad to see it go. I knew that it would probably end up a Starbucks or something. Still, I did not jump on the Oh My God The Ken Is Going Out Of Business, We Have to Save It Bandwagon, mostly because I know that it had been like 10 years since I'd seen a movie there. I would feel like a hypocrite if I publicly mourned the death of a business I had not patronized in a decade.

Years ago, okay, let's be honest here, more than a decade ago, when I used go see movies at The Ken, they would do a mix of foreign movies, small independent films, and classics. It's safe to say that I was a lot more into the classics than the foreign and independent films, and these had all but vanished from their schedule. I probably can't complain too much though. It is after all a business, and I'm sure that if classic films packed them in, I'm sure they would have shown them more regularly. I think the last film I saw there was a Bubblegum Crisis (Japanese anime) film. It was a long movie (well over two hours) and the 50-some-year-old seats did not make for a positive movie experience.

As with most social media uproars, the reality of the situation probably did not warrant the outcry that surrounded it. At the heart of it was a rental/lease negotiation between Landmark Theaters, the company that runs The Ken, and the whoever owns the building as well as the cost of converting the old theater to digital to remain viable in 2014. 


Fast forward to Friday of last week. By that point, it had all worked out. A friend mentioned that The Ken was doing a retrospective of films from the 60s and 70s. I googled it, and it turns out, the theater had converted to digital and would continue to be a movie theater, hooray! 

Not only had a cool old theater been saved from becoming a frappuccino dispensary, they were showing classic movies again. Topping the week-long event, at least in my mind was, The Godfather, scheduled that night. Now, on almost any other Friday, my wife would have gladly gone to see The Godfather in the theater with me, but she already had a Girls Night Out scheduled. Fair enough. So I started texting/e-mail people to see if anyone wanted to go. I also posted a note on Facebook about it, but I'll get to that later. 

My first thought was a couple friends, the husband and roommate of the woman hosting said Girls Night Out (they were being kicked out anyway). Turns out, they had already made plans to go see Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, fair enough. Next thought, was a friend who was more into films of any type than I am. He already had plans as well. My next thought was my best friend/old roommate. This I knew was a shot in the dark. He works at a nightclub; so him being free on a Friday night with no notice was not likely to happen. I was not at all surprised that he had to work.  I texted my 19-year-old son. If it had been Bubblegum Crisis (or any other anime), he would be on it like white on rice, but a film made 20 years before he was born, not so much. He declined. At this point, I'm starting to run out of options....


Back to Facebook

Now bear in mind that four months earlier, literally dozens of people in my Facebook feed were up in arms about the loss of a San Diego cultural landmark, the Ken Cinema, so Friday afternoon, circa 1:30 pm, when I posted the following:

So The Godfather is playing at The Ken tonight at 8:30. I've never seen it in the theater, anyone up for it?

I kind of expected something other than the following response: [Crickets]. Well, almost, this is what I really got:
  • Friend 1 (along with my wife) – Clicked Like.
  • Friend 2 – Said, not even exaggerating, that he could drive to Las Vegas faster than it would take to get through L.A., Orange County, and San Diego traffic to get to The Ken, but mentioned that he had seen both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II at The Ken, back before they had redone the seats.
  • "Friend" 3 – Said something snarky, unfunny, and negative, because that's what he does.
  • Friend 4 – Who lives more than an hour away, said he had been in San Diego the night before for a concert, but was really jealous.
  • Friend 5 – Said she would love to go but needed more notice.
So with the possible exception of the snarky unfunny negative "friend," I don't think any of these people were involved in the Oh My God The Ken Is Going Out Of Business, We Have to Save It thing.

I ended up going with my 14-year-old daughter. It was either that or go by myself. I was a little worried. The Godfather would be a little rough at 14. I know she watches things like The Cabin in the Woods, but The Godfather's different. I figured I'd leave it up to her. I asked if she wanted to go, and she said she has wanted to see it some time anyway, so we were on. She's got a good head on her shoulders, and I was pretty sure she'd be okay with it. I'll close with her review of the film:

Corleone family: Fuck you

Other families: Fuck you

Corleone family: Is that your final answer?

Other families wake up traumatized and dead.

She also said she wanted to slap Francis Ford Coppola. And hug him. So yeah, she was just fine with it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Steven Spielberg Blogathon - Duel

Steven Spielberg's Duel is a 1971 made-for-TV movie, starring Dennis Weaver as a traveling salesman who is terrorized by a psycho in a tanker truck on a lonely stretch of highway. Duel first aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on November 13, 1971. Originally the film ran 74 minutes. Later, Spielberg shot additional scenes to make it 90 minutes for theatrical release in Europe and Australia. This longer version had a limited theatrical release in the U.S and is what is available on DVD (Duel is coming to Blu-Ray as part of a set of 8 Speilberg movies in October).

Hard to choose a single image from the film,
but this one about sums it up.
The script by Richard Matheson is from a novelette he wrote for Playboy magazine. It was based on a real incident that happened on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Matheson and a friend were tailgated and pretty much run off the road by a crazy truck driver. To write the teleplay, Matheson took a road trip to Ventura County, California, bringing a tape recorder to record things that his character might see on the road. Matheson's script never revealed the identity of the truck driver, and Spielberg embraced the idea. Keeping the truck driver anonymous almost made the truck the villain, and not the driver. 

The film was shot in 13 days (3 days over the 10-day shooting schedule), an incredible feat for a movie shot entirely on location. Spielberg was under a lot of pressure to shoot it in the studio, but he knew that the car and truck shots would look fake if he didn't film them on real highways. He was able to speed up the process by doing things like having three cameras on the side of the road film Dennis Weaver's car and the truck go by. Then move all the cameras to the other side of the highway and have the car and the truck come back the other direction. The result would be that the vehicles still moved the same direction across the screen as needed but because the angle was different it looked like a completely different stretch of road. This approach gave him time to spend on the more complicated shots in the film.

Having just rewatched Duel. I was surprised that there was as much time where Dennis Weaver is not driving. You remember mostly him driving, and the huge truck looming. There is a fairly long sequence in a roadside diner where Weaver tries to figure out who the truck driver is, and even though Weaver is in no immediate danger, you're absorbed in his stress as he tries to isolate the psycho from the normal lunchtime patrons. Other sequences have Weaver trying to stop and get help or wait out the truck. On the DVD, there's a great making of feature, where Spielberg talks about how he was trying emulate Hitchcock and not let the audience off the hook, and he does this perfect. Every time Weaver comes up with a way of dealing the situation, something happens to force him back in the car where the truck awaits.

The film is shot an edited brilliantly, mixing low angle moving shots of the truck and Dennis Weaver's car with close ups of Weaver, the rear view mirror, and speedometer. Billy Goldenberg's musical score is less a score and more a mix of staccato experimental musical noises punctuating what is happening on the screen. Finally, Dennis Weaver is great. He starts out just a normal guy going about his life, but descends to near madness by the ordeal he has to endure. This is incredible movie, taking a realistic situation, turning it on its head, and executing on it as well as possible.

My history with Duel

I'm not sure exactly when I saw Duel the first time. I'm not sure whether I saw it when it first aired in November 1971 or later as a rerun.  Doing the math, I would have been 9. I know I saw it on TV, but 9 seems a little young, 10 or 11 makes more sense. I do know I wasn't very old. All I know was that at the time, McCloud was a pretty cool show, and it had the guy from McCloud. I do remember that all of my brothers and my sister were out, and my parents were in the other room reading, so I was very young, watching this insanely intense movie all by myself. 

I remember just thinking that Dennis Weaver was in it, and it should be fun. Man, did I not know what I was getting myself into. At the time, the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life was, Alfred Hitchcock's, The Birds. I don't know whether I can say that Duel was scarier than The Birds, but I do know that it made me squirm way way more. It was the first time I ever remember having that much anxiety over a film. Maybe The Birds was scarier, but Duel was a hundred times more intense. I guess it comes down to, The Birds you could talk yourself out of it. Your whole life, you had seen birds, and never once did they attack anyone, much less thousands of them mass against humanity. But a big huge truck, you saw that every time you left the house.

That was my first experience with Duel, alone, 10-years-old in the living room of my parents house. I didn't think about the film after that. Maybe if I ever go through analysis, they'll discover I repressed it. I know I never saw it again until much much later. Years later, when I saw another very intense movie by the same director, Jaws, I didn't associate it with Duel. At that age, I don't think I really knew what a film director was. 

All I know is that it didn't come up again until I was in college, at my Mom's house talking to my stepfather. At the time they had just rereleased a bunch of Hitchcock movies, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry. Naturally, I was really into Hitchcock at the time, and he mentioned a movie, that Steven Spielberg had done as a made-for-TV movie, where Dennis Weaver is terrorized by a guy in a tanker truck. It all came flooding back to me. I remember my reaction being something like, "Oh God, I remember that. I saw it when I was like, 10. It was so good."

Fairly soon afterwards, they ended up renting it so I could watch it. I couldn't afford a VCR in college. Well, you know how sometimes you see something as a kid and then you see it as an adult and it doesn't hold up to what you remember. You go, "What the heck was I thinking?" So not the case here. It was every bit as intense as it was when I was a kid. Just as it was when I watched it a couple of days ago. The intervening years, advances in film-making technology, better special effects, do nothing to take the edge of this great film.

The fact that Duel remains largely unknown is something of a tragedy. It ranks among the best films of one of the greatest directors of his or any generation. If you haven't seen it, you really must. It's every bit as good as any film Steven Spielberg has ever made.


Check out the other posts in this weekend's Steven Spielberg Blogathon at the event's co-host's sites: Outspoken and FreckledIt Rains... You Get Wet, and Citizen Screenings.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Growing up pre-cable/pre-VCR - How lack of choice helped you appreciate the finer things

I was born in 1962.  When I was a kid, there were somewhere between three and six TV stations in the San Diego market, the three networks, a Spanish language station broadcast out of Tijuana, and two UHF stations (PBS and one independent). Now, you might be wondering why I say between, 3 and 6 stations. I remember that the two UHF stations weren't always there. I remember them being new stations. I don't think I could say about the Spanish station. There were one or two L.A. stations that you could get most of the time and a couple of other L.A. stations that only came in clear enough to be watchable once or twice a year.

Our household had one TV. Granted I'm sure that if you really looked around, there was probably another set or two in the garage under a bunch of stuff, but trust me, if any of them had worked well enough, we would have been using them. I do remember on occasion my brother and I trying to put one of these old sets in our room, only to find it was just way more trouble than it was worth.

As a kid, you were pretty limited in how much TV was geared toward you. Saturday mornings were great for cartoons. After school, there were re-runs of things like Gilligan's Island and The Munsters, and of course more cartoons (one of the stations had a segment showing a combination of old Warner Bros. cartoons and Fleischer Studios Popeyes). In prime time, there were always kid-oriented shows, like The Brady Bunch or The Wonderful World of Disney, but shows like that were only on a handful of times a week, and you had to take into account what the rest of the family wanted to watch. There were times, a lot times in fact, where you just didn't have the option of watching a kid show. Even if you had control of the TV, definitely not a given in our house, you had to suck it up and watch what was on. 

When a kid's show wasn't on, you watched sitcoms like Barney Miller, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family, police dramas, Adam 12 and Hawaii Five-0, and lots of private eye shows, mostly Quinn Martin productions like Mannix and Barnaby Jones.  First run movies, ones that had been in the theaters a year or two earlier, were something of an event, even edited for television. A lot times, movies on TV meant old movies, Westerns, almost anything with John Wayne, Comedies, everything from Harvey to Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, Action movies usually meant period adventure stories, like The Advertures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, or any pirate movie, lots of Gangster movies, Sci-Fi both good and bad, and Horror, again both good and bad, but more often than not, good, although possibly that's just the way I remember it.

Now, I watch a lot of old movies, especially on TCM, yakking about them with other old movie geeks on twitter, using the #TCMParty hash tag. For the last two or three years, TCM has been doing The Essentials Jr., great classic movies geared toward kids, Sunday evenings during the summer. The other night one of them was Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, and there were probably a couple dozen of us talking about it on twitter, 140 characters at a time. Someone made a comment about how they wouldn't let their imaginary children watch something like that. Well, me, as a kid, Lifeboat was one of those old movies, that you went out of your way to watch. I can tell you right now, I didn't get a lot of the subtle nuances. Then again, I don't think I got the subtle nuances of the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched after school either.

With a movie like Lifeboat, I can guarantee that the part about Tellulah Bankhead's bracelet and John Hodiak was lost on me as a kid, but the drama of William Bendix getting his leg amputated and the treachery of the German U-boat Kapitan, that part I got. Now, if I had the opportunity to watch nothing but kid stuff The Love Bug, The Jungle Book, and old Bugs Bunny cartoons, I'm sure I would have. But I didn't, I had to watch was on. As a result, films like King Kong, Angels With Dirty Faces, and Lifeboat had a much bigger impact on me than The Love Bug or The Jungle Book. Why? Partly because you got to see them more often, but mostly, I think, because they were better movies. Being forced to watch everything forced me to watch much better stuff that I would have chosen on my own. Kids miss that now. Not just kids really, a whole generation after me missed out on that. I'm glad I didn't.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Final Cut - RIP, Robin Williams 1951-2014

In my mind, Robin Williams was one of the funniest people to come along in my lifetime. Thus, I find it kind of strange that my favorite film of his, The Final Cut, is not a comedy. Robin Williams' almost stream of consciousness tangential brand of comedy, was rarely seen in his film roles, with the notable exception of Disney's Aladdin, where he improvised much of the Genie dialog. On film, he was very good as a serious actor, odd for a person as funny as he was in front of a microphone doing standup.

The Final Cut is a serious science fiction movie. Now, one of my big gripes about what passes for Sci-Fi movies these days is that most of them are just action movies set in space and/or the future. These movies could just as easily be turned into straight action movies by removing the space/future elements, and they'd work just as well. That's not the case for The Final Cut, If you tried to remove the Sci-Fi, you wouldn't have a story anymore. It is a very good story, but I'll keep the spoilers down to the bare minimum for those who haven't seen it yet.

Any potential spoilers are contained in the following paragraph
In an alternate present, some people have memory implants, for the sake of making what amounts to a video of their lives for presentation to friends and family after death at the funeral/memorial service. Robin Williams is a cutter, one of the technicians who edit people's lives into a fitting tribute. Because of a dark past, he takes the work that nobody else wants, the people, who like him, conceal dark secrets. That's probably all you need to know about the story. 
End of spoilers

Oh, there's way more to it than that. It's all about the political, legal, and sociological implications of having your life as well as the lives of those around you recorded. All of the various plot details are logical and well thought out and force you to examine what are the meanings of things, like memories and privacy and human rights.

Whenever I watch The Final Cut, I get lost in the story, so much so, I often fail to notice just how good Robin Williams is. I mean it's a very demanding role, and never, not for a second, do I not believe him. He melts into the tortured character he is playing. When he plays anguish, I believe it. When he plays relief, I believe it. When he plays fear, I believe it. While watching the movie just now, I was wondering if anyone could have played this part as well. Possibly, but could anyone have played it better. No, absolutely not.

The Final Cut is great movie. It's science fiction in the best sense of the term. There are virtually no special effects. It explores an aspect of technology, but instead of dwelling on the technology itself, it focuses on the human interaction with it. It's a complicated story full of interesting ideas that tap into the gamut of human emotions, and throughout, Robin Williams is brilliant.

When I think of Robin Williams, I will always think first of his brilliant humor, the improvisational madness that made his standup comedy unlike anything we had ever seen before. But then I will think of the actor, the actor who took the craft of acting very serious. Even in a comedy like The Bird Cage or Mrs. Doubtfire, he realized that the humor didn't come from being funny but from being real and having the humor of the situation or the wit of the character do the humor. As a comic, he was brilliant. As an actor, he was equally brilliant.  He will be missed. RIP.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Comic-Con 2014 - Miscellaneous Pics

Go to Comic-Con 2014 - Sunday Pics

Putting up one of the building wraps Sunday before Comic-Con

Calm before the storm

Off-site Gaming setup at the Marriott

An empty lobby, must be Monday, or possibly Tuesday

View from our room

Weirdest thing in hotel gift shop; love the nurse holding a glass of lemonade, I hope

Wish I'd got better shot of this, love the pudgy action figures

I think you are required by law to take at least one infinite eyeballs picture each year, this one from phone came out way better than real camera

How do you cool down a very very large building full of as many people as Fire Marshall allows, rent extra A/C of course

Love the Bat they flew in from ceiling above DC booth

DC had artists decorate Batman cape and cowl

Another cape and cowl

Batman thing getting ready to devour small child; it was awful

One of my first purchases, Myrna Loy print from Jim Silke

The cowboy hat first thing Thursday when it only had a few things on it; see finished here

Friends Mary Max and Brian

Painting I bought from book I had as a kid, the very politically incorrect, Little Black Sambo

Painting I bought of Silver Surfer by Felipe Echevarria

Coolest piece of DC swag in years

Gotta love the ladies at Comic-Con

Or not

At a certain point, nothing phases you

Always some religious nutjobs at an event like Comic-Con

My friend Pam does a lot of doll cosplay; okay she makes a living making doll outfits like this

Victoria Minnich, she does really cool comics about lobster fishing, yes, you heard that right

Friend Margot

Artist Stan Yan does really cool caricatures of you as a zombie or My Little Pony if you prefer

I've lost weight as you can see from last year vs this year's zombie caricatures; artist Stan Yan says that it's mostly tongue weight