Sunday, September 22, 2019

Movies of 1979

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the films of 1979 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a look at some of the films discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles.

Steven Spielberg's attempt to make a John Landis-style comedy was famously a disaster but 1941 was a turning point in Spielberg's career. For one, it connected Spielberg with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would later write and direct the Spielberg produced Back to the Future. For another, 1941 was the third Spielberg film (following Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to suffer major cost overruns. After the failure of this film, Spielberg became much more disciplined and followed 1941 with Raiders of the Lost Ark which was completed on time and on budget.

A classic and highly influential movie, Alien was a haunted house movie in space. The film combines the classic monster tropes of sci-fi films like It! The Terror from Beyond Space with the intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film's influence is perhaps best observed in the xenomorph. The alien, from the artwork of H.R. Giger, inspired countless imitations.

Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War picture was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and tells the story of a soldier sent to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the southeast Asian jungle. This was one of the first major Hollywood films about Vietnam and it remains one of the best. Three versions of the movie exist: the 1979 theatrical cut, the 2001 Redux version, and the 2019 Final Cut.

Being There
Peter Sellers gave one of his greatest performances in what would be his penultimate movie. Being There is about a simple minded gardener who inadvertently becomes an Washington DC insider and the movie has a wry, off center sense of humor.

The Concord . . . Airport '79
The last in the Airport thrillers that would later be parodied in 1980's Airplane!, The Concord is a goofy piece of spectacle that's worth viewing when you're in the mood for something campy.

The Jerk 
A classic Steve Martin comedy and one of several collaborations between Martin and filmmaker Carl Reiner. The movie is extremely quotable and consistently hilarious with Martin throwing himself into the role.

Kramer vs. Kramer 
Kramer vs. Kramer is a divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Not only did it win the Academy Award for Best Picture but Kramer vs. Kramer was also the highest grossing picture of 1979. That's impossible to imagine happening today.

Monty Python's Life of Brian
The second feature film from British comedy troupe Monty Python was set in ancient Judea during the time of Christ. A common Jewish citizen is mistaken for the messiah. Life of Brian is the best Monty Python film and it has something to say about religion and faith while having a laugh. Although it received some push back at the time, Life of Brian has been embraced by religious and non-religious viewers alike which is a testament to the film's intelligence, humor, and goodheartedness.

James Bond in space. This film has become something of a punchline in 007 canon but it is a fun 70s action adventure.

The Muppet Movie
The first Muppet feature film assembles the original talents including Jim Henson and Frank Oz and it has a wacky and chaotic sense of humor that distinguished the 1970s Muppets from the contemporary films.

Norma Rae 
Sally Field starred in this true story of a textile worker who faced considerable odds in the effort to unionize her workplace. Field won an Academy Award for her performance.

Werner Herzog's remake of the classic silent film was a fascinatingly cerebral take on the vampire story. It's an existential vampire film that is unique in the genre.

Rocky II
One of the prime examples of the-same-but-different approach to Hollywood sequel making, Rocky II repeats a lot of the original movie. The plotting is somewhat strained and a few of the call backs to the first movie are forced but Rocky II benefits from a larger budget and the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is terrific boxing action.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The first installment of the Star Trek film series earns its subtitle. As Andy commented on the show, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the scope and grandeur that none of the other Star Trek films ever quite captured. The movie also has one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores. There are two versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the original theatrical cut and the "Director's Edition." Unfortunately, only the theatrical cut is currently available in high definition. 

The Warriors
The Warriors started as a serious and straightforward novel by Sol Yurick and it was turned into a fun, goofy, and high energy urban action movie by filmmaker Walter Hill. The director gave The Warriors a makeover in 2005, adding comic book touches like those in Sin City, and this is now the only version available.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Movies of 1979 on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, September 22, 2019, regular host Nathan Wardinski will be joined by his brothers, Andy and Ben, in a discussion of movies from 1979. This special retrospective episode will take a look at movies like Alien, Rocky II, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and more.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. The show can be heard over the air, online at each station's website, and on your mobile device using the TuneIn app.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Summer 2019 in Review

Labor Day concludes the summer season so before we transition into fall and winter, here’s a look back at the movies released from May through August. The summer is traditionally the time of year for populist entertainment and while Hollywood provided that it was an unusual season in a number of ways.

Disney’s Dominance
Disney’s tentpole releases dominated the summer box office to the exclusion of almost anything else. The top five grossing movies of the summer were all Disney-owned releases: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home, and Aladdin. The studio has done well for itself, setting a new box office record with over $7.6 billion earned so far this year and with more to come with the anticipated releases of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But these films were plagued with a feeling déjà vu and most of Disney’s summer blockbusters were just average in their quality. The Spider-Man sequel was good but nothing we haven’t seen before while The Lion King and Aladdin were exactly what we’d seen before. Even Toy Story 4, which was quite good, had trouble justifying its existence. As David Erhlich said of The Lion King, Disney’s output in summer 2019 was “a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”

The Shrinking Theatrical Market
Disney’s success appeared to come at the expense of nearly everyone else. The entertainment press regularly turned out pearl clutching analysis pieces that juxtaposed Disney’s market share largess against the failure of other studio franchise releases like Dark Phoenix, MiB: International, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s worth noting that most of these movies just weren’t very good. The dominance of a single studio can and should worry anyone who cares about cinema and the long term health of the industry. But we also have to acknowledge that Disney’s success was at least assisted by the fact that their competition was pathetic.

More concerning was the box office underperformance of smaller movies. Many good midlevel budgeted movies ($40 - $70 million production budgets) just didn’t attract an audience. Booksmart suffered from a bad marketing scheme and a lousy release date. Long Shot was a good and smart movie with a bland title and its political themes might have been of little interest to an audience that is inundated with politics in every other medium. The remake of Child’s Play was released around the same time as Annabelle Comes Home and it might have been one killer doll too many. We can speculate why Late Night and Dora and the Lost City of Gold and Midsommar and The Angry Birds Movie 2 failed but whatever the cause, this trend points to an audience that is only interested in attending the theater for the biggest releases of familiar titles and brands. The theatrical marketplace cannot survive on tentpoles alone.

Musical Films
2019 has seen the release of a lot of musical movies and several titles debuted this summer. A few of these were documentaries including the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. Also released this summer were Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, about the relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s documentary about the legendary opera singer. Summer 2019 also featured several musical dramas. Rocketman was an impressive biopic of Elton John. Yesterday was high concept piece that paid tribute to the music of The Beatles while Born to Run dramatized the true story of a Pakistani immigrant living in the UK who was inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

An Impressive August
In a typical summer, Hollywood studios release their flagship titles in May through July, with the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays being the peak periods. August has traditionally been designated as a dumping ground for low quality titles that studios don’t have faith in and the Labor Day holiday is typically a low turnout weekend. Summer 2019 played out a little differently. Several high profile May through July releases were underwhelming while August saw the release of Good Boys, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Blinded by the Light, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Ready or Not and even Angel Has Fallen was better than expected. Not all of these films drew crowds but this was a better quality August crop than we usually get at the end of the summer.

Highlights of the Summer
Here are a few of the better movies released this summer:

The Art of Self Defense: An offbeat and terrifically crafted black comedy that both tapped into this particular moment but also transcended it with a story that is worthy of comparison to Fight Club and American Psycho.

Blinded By the Light: A surprisingly layered and complex jukebox musical that was a lot of fun. Blinded By the Light was a tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen with a genuine appreciation for what The Boss had to say but it transcended mere fandom.

Booksmart: Every generation gets at least one last-crazy-night-in-high-school movie and Booksmart reimagined that story for the 2019 audience and populated it with likable and interesting characters.

Child’s Play: The remake of the 1980s slasher classic was much better than expected. It revisited the material and provided a fresh take while remaining germane to the original idea.

Crawl: This killer alligator movie was one of 2019’s most satisfying popcorn entertainments and one of Alexandre Aja’s most accessible films.

The Farewell: A nearly perfect movie. The filmmaking, the performances, and the storytelling coalesce in an extraordinarily satisfying story.

Good Boys: One of the best comedies of recent years and certainly the best comedy of summer 2019.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: The John Wick series keeps topping itself and the third installment was an extraordinary action picture.

Long Shot: This movie got missed in its theatrical release but Long Shot was rare bird: a politically adept romantic comedy.

Midsommar: Continuing the present wave of impressive horror pictures, Midsommar might be too cerebral for the Conjuring crowd but it was a smart and expertly made film. A director’s cut was given a limited release at the end of the summer.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie was his most self-indulgent (and that is really saying something) but it was a fun nostalgia trip to a bygone era.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: The feel-good movie of the summer, The Peanut Butter Falcon was a really likable film with notable performances by Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf.

Ready or Not: A shrewd mix of horror and comedy, Ready or Not was smart and well produced and had a wicked sense of humor.

Rocketman: This dramatization of the life and music of Elton John had extraordinary set pieces and a terrific cast including Taron Egerton in the lead role.