Wednesday, May 28, 2008

EW on Sydney Pollack

Entertainment Weekly's website has a short but interesting piece reflecting on the career of Sydney Pollack, who passed away earlier this week. Here is an excerpt:

Sydney Pollack made movies for grownups. He didn't make movies about teenager-stalking slashers or CGI monsters or men in tights (well, except for Tootsie). The director, who died yesterday at 73, seems like the last of a breed, a filmmaker who specialized in old-fashioned, star-driven, sweeping romances and epics of the kind that used to win Oscars but that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. (About the only other director of recent years who still made such anachronistic spectacles was Pollack's producing partner, Anthony Minghella, who died just two months ago.) It's hard to imagine anyone trying nowadays to make a romance with the sprawl and scope of The Way We Were or Out of Africa, movies with artistic ambition, star-powered glamour, and faith that there are enough adult ticketbuyers to make them hits without pandering.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

New Hollywood Series: Apocalypse Now

For this Memorial Day, and in continuation of the ongoing New Hollywood series here on Maverick at the Movies, today's episode features a condensed version of the two-disc, 96 minute the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now released by Elektra Records, trimmed to fit within the show’s length and edited to conform to FCC regulations on content. The soundtrack album is unique in that it includes the music, dialogue, sound effects, and narration, making the album play very much like a radio drama.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now was released in 1979 amid press stories of a chaotic shoot in south East Asia and the film had the distinction of being one of the first studio pictures to deal with the Vietnam War. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, an American soldier back on tour in Vietnam, who is given a secret mission to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the South East Asian jungle. On Willard’s journey he confronts his own doubts about the war, his allegiance to his country, and even his own sanity.

The picture is structured to take its protagonist through the Vietnam War, but also through civilization, gradually stripping away social and technological signs of human advancement and returning man to a primal state of nature. By doing this film is able to take a look into the origins of violence and the nature of warfare, making Apocalypse Now a deeper exploration of the Thanatos drive.

As a technical exercise, Apocalypse Now has some great examples of visuals and sound working together. The helicopter attack is an iconic piece of film history with a sensory overload of explosions, camerawork, and music that satirizes the contemporary war film (and is quite clearly referenced—without irony—in Rambo: First Blood – Part II).

There are some great performances in the film. Marlon Brando gives the last great performance of his career as Colonel Kurtz, a tortured soul burdened with terrifying insight into the truth of war and the worst elements of human existence. Martin Sheen stars as Willard, a conflicted army captain who has lost his way in the amoral nature of warfare. Willard’s journey and his narration of the tale provides the film with direction and shapes the themes of the story, making them much clearer than if they were just presented visually and Sheen’s performance is the glue that holds the film together. Apocalypse Now also has some terrific supporting performances by Robert Duvall as the reckless Colonel Kilgore and Dennis Hopper as an eccentric photojournalist.

In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux, a re-edit of the film that adds nearly an hour of footage. Unlike some other director’s cuts, Redux adds entire new sequences that build upon the themes and further develop the characters. The most interesting addition is a sequence on a French plantation in Vietnam. Admittedly, the new scenes to grind the narrative to a halt in places, but Redux makes for an interesting alternative cut of the film.

While it’s one of the most controversial war films of all time, it’s also one of best, a film that mixes art house style with Hollywood spectacle to create an engaging and sophisticated portrait of modern warfare set against the primeval barbarity of human nature.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Apocalypse Now on Memorial Day Weekend

A special presentation of the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now will air on Maverick at the Movies on Sunday, May 25th. The episode will feature an abridged version of the 2-disc soundtrack released by Elektra/Asylum Records which features not just the music but the dialogue and sound effects as well, playing out the story like a radio drama.

From the 50 Yard Line

The feature length film From the 50 Yard Line will be shown at Mankato West High School May 23rd, 2008 at 7:30p.m. Tickets will be $7 a piece. The screening is sponsored by the Mankato Area 77 Lancers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

LA Times on Spielberg

Peter Rainer has written an interesting essay on the career of Steven Spielberg. Dealing with a director who has come to epitomize commercial interests and contemporary Hollywood power, Rainer cuts between praising Spielberg's success as an entertainer and criticizing him for supposed lack of substance. Here are some excerpts:

The directors of Spielberg's generation who came up in the late '60s and early '70s, many of them film-school-trained, were the first in America to push their encyclopedic passion for movies right into the forefront of their work. Their rebellion against Old Hollywood was essentially a pose, since directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra were mainstays of their mindscapes. Old movies functioned for these filmmakers as primary experiences -- touchstones of inspiration -- in the same way that poetry or literature might have functioned for an earlier generation of artists.
Spielberg, however, came from a somewhat different place. He never officially attended a major film school. His heroes were the big-picture guys like David Lean and Stanley Kubrick or versatile old studio hands like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming -- directors who could be counted on to deliver reliable commercial entertainment (and sometimes more than that). While many of his '70s confederates, who also were to include such directors as Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme and Philip Kaufman, were attempting to work outside the industry, or subvert it from within through sheer force of artistry, Spielberg was directing episodes of "Night Gallery" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." and then moving on to sharks and flying saucers.
The career trajectory of Hollywood directors before the '70s typically followed the winding path from unpretentious to "prestigious" (i.e., Oscar-worthy). Take, for example, George Stevens, who went from "Alice Adams," "Swing Time," "Gunga Din" and "The More the Merrier" to "A Place in the Sun," "Giant," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Most of the '70s directors did their best to avoid this syndrome or at least held out for as long as they could. Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," a deranged movie about a deranged war, could never have been mistaken for a respectable war epic. Scorsese's biblical movie was "The Last Temptation of Christ."

But Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood, was naturally the director who most wholeheartedly fell into the prestige trap. Whatever their merits, and in some cases they are considerable, films such as "The Color Purple," "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler's List," "Amistad," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich" are all deeply conventional in terms of how the world is comprehended. Some of these films may be better made, or, in the case of "Schindler's List," more richly felt than their Old Hollywood counterparts. But all are afflicted with a kind of transcendent Stanley Kramerism. We are made to understand that moral lessons are being imparted and that, in the end, tomorrow will somehow be a better day.
FOR A director of conscience who can make his camera do anything, the realization that he has it in him to inspire absolute dread must be supremely unsettling. (I'm not thinking of "Jaws," which was comic-book dread.) What surely must prey upon Spielberg as he gets older are not the bliss-outs he is uniquely capable of creating but the horrors. The Normandy Beach landing in "Saving Private Ryan" goes way beyond the usual technical exercise; it's a fury against the flesh. In "Minority Report," Tom Cruise's John Anderton, the chief of the Department of Pre-Crime in the District of Columbia, stands before a floating computer interface and, arms waving like an impresario, whisks around its midair crime scene visuals. It's a nightmare representation of the director as puppet master, and it comes with a kicker: Anderton, whose mind is a mausoleum of horrific images, is himself a murderer-to-be.

The filmmakers of Spielberg's generation wanted to take over Hollywood and change the face of an art form. And for a brief period, until the blockbuster syndrome kicked in in the mid-'70s, they did just that. Along with Lucas, Spielberg is often blamed for shutting down the renaissance, as if without "Jaws" and "Star Wars" it never would have occurred to anybody in Hollywood to come up with high concepts and saturation marketing. "I hate Spielberg," a young filmmaker told me at a movie festival recently when he heard I was going to be writing about him. "He killed the indie film." And then he added, "But I loved 'Jaws.' "
This doesn't mean Spielberg gets a free pass. Some of the cottages in his cottage industry have all the allure of McMansions. He has yet to make a movie that revels in the commonplace; for him, the ordinary is always (yawn) a springboard to magic. He has never made a movie with more than a trace of carnality. His world view is cut-rate Manichean -- darks and lights and not much gray in between. It's a pity he shelved his plans to make a movie about his childhood idol, Charles Lindbergh, the all-American aviator and Fascist sympathizer. Now there's a character who would have put Spielberg to the test. Instead, he's gearing up to make "Lincoln" with Liam Neeson, which sounds like a snooze. And "Jurassic 4" is on the radar.

Spielberg is still the teacher's pet of his class, but the difference is that now he owns the schoolhouse. Maybe for a while he should try being a truant.

I don't think Rainer gives Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind enough credit, discounting them as comic book fantasy. I don't think that's fair or accurate; Jaws is a great horror story cast in the mold of a Corman film, but it reaches beyond that genre mold as a criticism of capitalism and the struggle of one man's conscience against forces of nature, both human and aquatic. Close Encounters, on the other hand, is really a religious film with science fiction symbols. Rainer's argument that the aliens are benign from the opening is not true; view the home invasion when the extraterrestrials kidnap a young boy. It is among the scariest scenes in any Spielberg film ever. The film is about faith and uses religious references (lights in the sky, visions, climbing a mountain to have communion with the gods) to tell a story of revelation just as Scorsese used these kinds of references in films like Raging Bull to communicate themes of sin and redemption.

Rainer's lament that Spielberg has never dealt with the commonplace is a silly but often floated argument against both the filmmaker and against the science fiction and fantasy genres. If one thing has marked Spielberg's entertainment, not to mention his most successful proteges like Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson, it is the ability to place the personal into the fantasy. I've already made the case for Jaws and Close Encounters. Indiana Jones reconciles with the father that was never in his life and Jurassic Park takes on the perils and responsibilities of technology. Minority Report and War of the Worlds are about our post-9/11 world and place issues like broken families and distrust of social institutions against an action-adventure background. It is significant to mention that nearly all of the 9/11 and post-9/11 narrative films have been unsuccessful at the box office, even some that were quite excellent like United 93, but both of Spielberg's films were big hits. And there are plenty of reasons for that (star power, Spielberg's name recognition, etc.) but the fact remains that the films that nestled difficult subject matter within supposedly escapist fare were best received by audiences.

It's true that Spielberg often puts entertainment before substance, the Indiana Jones films being the primary examples. And his filmography is certainly not perfect; consider The Lost World. But a creative writing instructor once told me, quite wisely, that a storyteller's first obligation is to be entertaining. An entertaining story with no substance will keep an audience's attention although it will be disposable. A substantive story with no entertainment value will reach no one. A great story, whether it's about a giant shark or a Greek myth, will both entertain us while telling us something true and substantive about the world. And just because a story is optimistic doesn't make it shallow. Optimism is not to be shunned if it's authentic, and Spielberg's films are box office successes partly because audiences respond to that optimism.

As it is, Spielberg has won two Best Director Oscars and made many of the most popular and successful films of all time, so he probably doesn't need to sweat what the bloggers and the critics and the columnists think. While some critics will hound his work to the end either because he's just too damn optimistic or because he's made too much money, I would liken Spielberg's legacy to John Ford or Frank Capra. Both made some great films that were widely entertaining and had substance to them.

Could Spielberg do something more challenging or extremely dark and depressing? Probably. And Salvador Dali could have painted a vase or a bowl of grapes. But that's not what marked Dali's work and to complain that Spielberg's films do not mirror the tone or point of view of Coppola's or Scorsese's work is a ridiculous condition.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Variety: Studios Redefining 'Chick Flicks'

Peter Bart
Fri., May 9, 2008, 1:58pm PT

Is the expression "chick flicks" a put-down?

Movie marketers think of "chick flicks" in a positive sense -- films that appeal to female sensibilities but also transcend gender boundaries. But talk to folks like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and they wince at the "chick flick" tag. To them, it suggests pandering to women's tastes, which they insist their film, "Baby Mama," doesn't do.

Now along comes Manohla Dargis, the New York Times' lead female critic, with her unique take on the issue. According to Dargis, the argument over "chick flicks" is irrelevant because no movies are being made for women anymore. Hollywood is now perpetuating "the new, post-female American cinema," she avers.

This will come as news to studio chiefs who feel their summer slates embrace more cross-gender comedies -- indeed, more chick flicks -- than ever before. How about "Mamma Mia" and "Sex and the City" for starters?

Baloney, retorts Dargis, who dwells in her own definitional universe. "The girls of summer are few in number and real women (in film) are close to extinct," she blurts. As for the feature version of "Sex and the City," fans of the HBO show know that "its four bosomy buddies are really gay men in drag." And Meryl Streep? She's just earning a big payday in a "jukebox musical."

I sense several arguments brewing here. Sarah Jessica Parker will doubtless be displeased that her movie has been instantly transgenderized. Meanwhile, the producers of "Mamma Mia," perhaps the most popular sing-along in show business history, might resent their show being dismissed as a jukebox.

But then Dargis also has her theories about guy films, as well. It's her view that the protagonist in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" -- a sensitive type prone to crying jags -- is "basically another chick." Indeed, the actor, Jason Segel, is so "softly plumped, he even looks as if he could fit into an A cup." Fearing this characterization, that's perhaps why Segel, who also wrote the script, injected two scenes displaying his full frontal phallus.

While the Times' critic obviously suffers from sexual disorientation -- maybe that's what happens when you see too many movies -- her syndrome points up the problems in deciding what is, or is not, a chick flick. I've always thought -- perhaps simplistically -- that a chick flick is, basically, a good date film. The difference is that it's the girl who motivates her guy to buy the ticket.

And the guy is usually grateful. That was certainly the case with movies like "Sleepless in Seattle," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "The Devil Wears Prada" or even "Juno." All were breakout films because their appeal transcended gender.

On the other hand, I find myself resisting movies that seem, on the surface, to be mega-chick flicks. Any title with the words "Traveling Pants" worries me. I never want to meet anyone named "Miss Congeniality" and when stars like Julia Roberts decide to make "issue pictures" like "Mona Lisa Smile," I take refuge in zit flicks like "Speed Racer."

The coming weeks, however, will offer a substantial number of films that, on the surface, sound as though they'll carry broad audience appeal. Think of "What Happens in Vegas," "The Love Guru," "Get Smart" or "The Pineapple Express."

There'll be more comedies than ever this summer, and some of them will be aggressively cross-gender, and more of the thrillers, too, probably will appeal to women as well as men. The model may turn out to be "Iron Man": Its protagonist (Robert Downey Jr.) is a lot hipper than previous superheroes, isn't scared of women like "Superman" or addicted to kinky gear like "Batman" or anatomically overequipped like "The Incredible Hulk." I suspect many women will find "Iron Man," to be downright sexy in his own clanky and clunky way.

Hence, I suspect that several chick flicks will end up on the "sleeper hit" list by fall, even though they may get kissed off by some critics who clearly need to get a life. Even a transgender one.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Street Fighter

A double feature of The Street Fighter and Return of the Street Fighter starring Sonny Chiba (no, not the video game crapfest starring Jean Claude Van Damme) will be shown Saturday, May 31st at 7pm in the Weicking Center Auditorium on the Minnesota State University campus.

Admission is free and Shuffle Function is sponsering the screening. Find out more at their blog.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Meet KMSU Radio Stars at Movies 8

Some members of the 89.7 KMSU FM staff will be manning a table at the Cinemark Movies 8 in the River Hills Mall before the screening of This American Life tonight at 7pm. If you are available, stop by and say hello.