Love, Anger & Meds:Silver Linings Playbook

silver

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are just two, crazy, mixed up kids

There is genuine joy in seeing dysfunctional characters fight their way through this messy thing called life and ascertain their fair share of happiness in spite of their own efforts to sabotage it. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a film centered on a family abundant with dysfunction. It is a romantic comedy that revels in the uglier, more chaotic ambit of relationships. It’s raw, funny, frenzied and, at times, deeply moving.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been discharged from an 8 month stay at a mental institution; an arrangement made in a plea bargain as a result of him brutally attacking a man that was having an affair with his wife. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is prone to fits of rage. Upon release, he moves back in with his parents (Jackie Weaver & Robert De Niro) and is hell bent on getting his life in order; including winning back the trust and love of his wife. Pat soon meets Tiffany (a terrific Jennifer Lawrence) who has recently been widowed and struggles with social/behavioral issues of her own. There is an immediate, visceral spark between them but Pat withdraws in an effort to maintain his focus on his estranged wife. Tiffany eventually sells Pat on the idea of her helping him win back his wife if he will help her in a dance contest. If that sounds like a romantic comedy trope I would agree. The truth is, the film starts out feeling very indie-film and then quickly becomes quite conventional but only in terms of plot. The richness and rewards are found in the biting, unconventional dialogue as well as the terrific performances by all. Director Russell knows how to stir a scene to chaotic heights as well as shift deftly between laughs and tears. Like all of his films, there is a kind of manic energy that permeates throughout. That energy is sometimes suppressed and sometimes released but it’s always there, simmering. Bradley Cooper is excellent as the wounded Pat struggling to remain positive amid the turmoil. I really enjoyed seeing Robert De Niro, who’s OCD and struggles with anger as well, in a role that is decidedly more restrained (this is not the mugging, Meet the Parents De Niro) and, in several scenes, very touching. The movie, however, belongs to Jennifer Lawrence who shows tremendous range as the deeply troubled Tiffany. She harbors guilt and lashes out when threatened but her love for Pat is palpable and real; with him she becomes vulnerable. The film concludes in, again, a very conventional way but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway because you really love these two, broken people. You just do. Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best films of 2012.

 

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QT Goes West: Django Unchained

Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are out for bounty.

Between 1992 and 1997 there were three terrific films released that would solidify a director as a force to be reckoned with:Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. During this breakout, critically and commercially successful phase of director Quentin Tarantino’s career I was, like most, genuinely excited by whatever was going to come next. Unfortunately, the upward trajectory that those first three films initiated would be altered by the rest of his output which has consisted of films that, for me, progressively lost narrative focus and relied too much on his penchant to pay homage to the film world of the past. His popularity with film geeks everywhere as a director and purveyor of film-nerd taste has obviously encouraged him to forgo his talents in telling new stories in favor of stringing together a kind of long-winded cinema’s greatest hits. He has allowed himself to be swallowed up by his cinematic obsessions and Frankenstein’d their random parts into massive, uneven movies like Django Unchained.

At almost 3 hours in length, Django has plenty of things going on but like his Kill Bill films, the sum has been lost to the parts (some very good, others not so much). Lingering on things that don’t necessarily seem to matter and then rushing through things that seemingly do; Django suffers from pacing issues. And while the once highly sought after guru of sharp dialogue can still unload the monologues, none of the ones in Django rise to the mesmerizing level of Christopher Walken talking of watches or Samuel Jackson explaining Ezekial 25:17. One passionate speech given by Leo DiCaprio that involves a skull is so out of nowhere, so forced, that it deflates the very tension it was designed to create. Other scenes still show some of the QT sparkle though, like one involving the KKK and their not-so-functional hoods that is laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously, it’s one of the funniest scenes I have seen in years.

The film looks great (top notch cinematography by frequent Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson) with plenty of beautiful outdoor scenery and visual punch. The wall to wall, eclectic soundtrack that has been a mandatory element in all of his films is present and accounted for. And while the music over visuals works for the most part it has also become  another item to be checked on the QT checklist. Another item on that checklist is the Tarantino cameo. Unable to help himself, he shows up in a minor role (remember that scene from Pulp Fiction that you wish could be re-cast?) near the end. And just to make sure that it will completely pull you out of the movie he decided to sport an unconvincing, Australian accent. The other performances are only as good as they are written and so, accordingly, they are all over the map. Jamie Foxx plays the slave-turn-bounty hunter title character with plenty of macho-cool. Infinitely more colorful and engaging is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Shultz, the bounty hunter who takes Django under his wing. Leonardo DiCaprio swaggers and screams as the muculent plantation owner Calvin Candi. The ham bone of the year award goes to Samuel Jackson as Stephan the head slave of Candi’s plantation. Jackson has one note and he plays it all night long. There are only two female characters that get to do anything aside from blending in to the background. Unfortunately,their roles are limited to smiling a whole lot (Laura Cayouette) and looking frightened a whole lot (Kerry Washington) as they say their handful of lines.

There has been some controversy over Tarantino’s decision to immerse his story in the ugliness of slavery in the south.  My own feeling is the problem lies in the fact that Tarantino has created a cartoonish world that does not bode well with that very real and ugly part of American history. I think his intent was to provide a cathartic, stylized revenge picture similar to Inglorious Bastards. The end result, for me, was that it worked some of the time but at other times it left me feeling uneasy. There is an immature tone that permeates the film; a kind of 9th grade view of all of the characters and situations. It’s as if Tarantino is in over his head.

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There are some potent images like this one which then cuts to cotton blooms being sprayed with blood.

Django is, of course, filled with millions of bullets and gallons of blood. And though the violence is extreme and bountiful; it didn’t do much but remind me that Tarantino loves Peckinpah and Leone. Moreover, the big, final, show-stopping gun battle is lazily staged with an endless stream of “bad guys” entering doors and windows to be fodder for Django’s bullets. Other scenes are better handled like the one that opens the film and I am pretty sure it includes a first in screen violence. Let’s just say he ups the ante on Mel Brooks.

I realize that this whole review has been more about my disappointment with Tarantino’s career than Django. That is mostly because I desperately wish that he was still capable of making something as good as Jackie Brown. But I continue to lose confidence with each film he releases. Moreover, as I think about Lincoln and how Spielberg has managed to stay relevant (with his share of misses to go along with the hits)  for almost 45 years; I am frustrated that QT has undermined his own career to be the purveyor of all things retro-film-cool. He is content to play in the limited space of his own film-fetish-playground.

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Lincoln and This is 40

Daniel Day Lewis as honest Abe

Daniel Day Lewis as honest Abe

Like Lincoln himself, Steven Spielberg’s film of the same name is modest and measured throughout its lengthy running time. Spielberg forgoes (not completely but more than one would expect) his penchant to over-sentimentalize. One gets a palpable sense of a time and a place that was infinitely quieter and with significantly less artificial light (DP Janusz Kaminski shoots in extremely low light rooms with beautiful results). Couple this long, lost environment with the thoughtful, reserved manner of Lincoln himself and you get a movie that dares the audience to spend most of the time slightly leaning foreword to hear and absorb what unfolds. Certainly there are loud moments when the politicians get tangled in fights on the House of Representatives floor but my favorite take-away from this handsomely mounted production is its deliberate quietness. Much like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Lincoln reminds the viewer that we once lived in cities and towns that were audibly less busy.

Daniel Day Lewis is Lincoln. The flat, Midwestern voice. The fragile way he carries his tall frame. His ability to politely counter those who question his motives. His love of telling stories. It’s a mesmerizing performance that carries the film with grace and ease. The rest of the large cast shine as well. Only Joesph Gorden-Levitt seems to have been given the least to work with and his role as Lincoln’s oldest son should have been either expanded or taken out completely as it never feels satisfying or important to the overall story. All of the actors are given terrific dialogue that is at once colloquial, bristling and heartfelt  courtesy of screenwriting heavyweight Tony Kushner.

The story of how Lincoln quietly went about the seemingly impossible task of securing votes to get the 13th amendment passed while simultaneously trying to bring an end to the civil war is compelling stuff. Lincoln was a shrewd politician; always willing to compromise and manipulate others to secure his ends. In these fiscal-cliff-times we live in it is all the more enlightening/sad/surprising/not-so-surprising that after 147 years, politics is politics now and forever. Highly recommended.

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Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are pretty to look at and that is about it

Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 is a lazy, shallow and only occasionally funny film. Unlike some of his earlier films that were more successful at balancing laughs and relationship drama (Knocked Up), This Is 40 never finds its footing and suffers from a screenplay that feels like a first draft. That is all the more surprising as Apatow himself considers this to be his most personal film. While he does touch briefly on some of the funny and familiar earmarks of being a couple in their 40’s, it never finds an emotional core. Though most of the blame lies at Apatow’s feet, it doesn’t help that the film’s two leads (Paul Rudd & Leslie Mann) are not carry-the-film-type actors and their slightness as actors only amplify the weakness of Apatow’s script. Mann in particular has a voice and a delivery that is flat and grating over time. The problems of this married couple are of the most superficial variety and as the film progresses your (hoped for) sympathies are reduced to the point that you will wish real problems upon them. Apatow hopes that showing the couple’s daughter curse uncontrollably or showing an 80’s-style montage of our featured couple getting high will distract you from the fact that we really don’t know why we are supposed to care for these spoiled, immature people. The few laughs we do get (Melissa McCarthy gets to improvise an angry scene that is memorable) are scattered about and many of them feel forced (when all else fails reach for the boobs, vagina and penis jokes). None of these few and far between laughs will soften the resentment you will feel towards its over-2 hour running time. The Apatow movie formula has officially become stale. Not recommended.

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Business as Usual: Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt and a weary Richard Jenkins get business done the hard way

Brad Pitt and a weary Richard Jenkins get business done the hard way

Ever since the controversial days of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the Wild Bunch (1969), American movies moved from showing us violence to savoring it, reveling in it; making it a thing of horrific beauty. It was shocking in those days. Now we are accustomed to slow motion bullets forging colorful holes through falling bodies in a ghoulish, cinematic dance. This, of course, is not everyone’s cup of tea but when it comes to crime and violence on the silver screen we expect there to be some splashes of red. More on that later.

Stylishly directed by Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly is a crime film that you have seen a hundred times before but fortunately it is peppered with a half a dozen character driven scenes, most of which could have been juicy, one act plays carried by top-shelf performances. The success of these scenes is due, in no small part, to the book on which this film is based, Cogan’s Bluff (1974) written by George Higgins. It should be noted that Higgins’ novels have had far reaching influence in the movies. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino have dropped Higgins’ name as having inspired their work. His biggest success, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was adapted into a film of the same name. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum in one of his best performances, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) is one of the best crime films ever made and certainly one of the best films of the 1970’s. Common among all of Higgins’ works are lengthy conversations between criminals of varying social classes which are often cynically funny, dangerous and engaging.

Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and a number of solid character actors (special shout out to Richard Jenkins who plays a weary, middle management criminal) all get to revel in the sharply written dialog (adapted screenplay by Dominik). The workaday lives of these criminals is shown in rich detail and then side-swiped by sudden bursts of violence. These bursts of violence gave me mixed feelings right from the start. The violence becomes so stylized and Dominik lingers so long in these moments that they feel disconnected from the rest of the film which operates in a more transparent way. The whole film suffers from feeling fragmented anyway. All of the pieces are there, they all work but they don’t coagulate. The biggest misstep of all is Dominik’s decision to place his story in the throws of the 2008 financial crisis/presidential campaign. Throughout the film’s running time we are exposed to tv and radio clips of Bush, Obama and others sounding off about the state of our country. Most of these moments are awkwardly staged in a way that undermines their intent. Dominik wants us to know that criminals had it rough too. They had to make some changes in how they did business when the economy tanked too. Subtle it ain’t.

Having said all of that, there is no denying that Dominik is a talented director. His previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007) was a hugely underrated work. That film was gloriously visual and beautifully meditative. I am still anticipating whatever his next project will be. Killing Them Softly is an uneven experience. It effortlessly gets into the groove of the Higgins crime mise-en-scène and then falls out of it here and there to the detriment of the film’s cumulative effect.

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Bond, 50 year old Bond: Skyfall

Bond films have a specific checklist that they must abide by. It’s why we go see them. Good looking actor in place- check. Action scenes- check. Beautiful locales- check. Etc. Etc. Bond has been with us on movie screens for 50 years now and Sam Mendes’ Skyfall tries to artfully acknowledge the franchise’s well-worn age while simultaneously giving it a top of the line sheen. Man, does this film look great. Roger Deakin’s cinematography solidifies this entry as the best looking Bond film ever. Adding to the film’s classical look is veteran editor Stuart Baird who lends a throwback pacing that works well. At the very least you will enjoy just looking at Skyfall but there are many elements that energize and carry this 2 1/2 hour picture across the finish line. Alas, there are also some inherent Bond tropes that weigh it down and depending on what level of fan you are will determine how much it works for you.

My complaints with the previous Craig-as-Bond films are still pretty much the same. There is a prevailing seriousness that permeates these last three films that, now, has become tedious. Judi Dench scowling out a window, having minimalist conversation with our hero has kinda run its course for me. They have tried to inject some humor and even some emotional pathos this time but it cannot loosen up the solemn tone that permeates. The action scenes are uneven but mostly solid. The big one that opens the film is also the one that loses steam and credibility quickly which worried me.  Thankfully,  Mendes gives later ones an exhilarating visual flair with memorable images. It’s here too, that Baird’s editing gives strong visual clarity.

Bond movies are only as good as the villain and Javier Bardem’ s Raoul Silva is memorable if a little derivative. There is a great build up to his appearance. One scene in particular that has his mistress (an excellent performance by Berenice Lim Marlohe) trying to warn Bond ratchets up the tension of the whole film. Bardem is a strong presence and he carries the film well but his overall appearance (is he required to have distracting, weird hair when he plays a heavy?) and the Hannibal Lecter-ness of one scene in particular distract from an otherwise effective performance.

There is a theme throughout the film that calls into question the relevance of MI6 and, in effect, M and Bond. Faceless enemies who steal/control information have taken the place of bad guys with guns. It’s a theme that works well and comes to a head when modern technology as a whole is confronted with a more primitive, old school retaliation. It also happens to work as a tip of the hat to the Bond of old and gives a satisfying conclusion to the film.

What can I say? It’s a very good Bond film. We want them to hit their marks and give us what we expect from a Bond film. We don’t want too many surprises.

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James M. Cain: Mildred Pierce (book/mini series)

James M. Cain

”Nobody has quite pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemmingway, and not even Raymond Chandler.” — Tom Wolfe

I first read James M. Cain because of my love for the film Double Indemnity (1944). I read the short, page-turner, noir classic in high school but never read anything by Cain again until last year when I picked up The Postman Always Rings twice (1934) and was immediately knocked out by it’s stripped down, raw prose and fatalistic characters. Talk about keeping things lean. Cain boils everything down to the bare essentials. I have never read a book so devoid of description and yet so amazingly vivid. He often ends chapters with a simple line that is delivered like a blow to the gut. The original 1946 film with John Garfield and Lana Turner is quite good but it is positively tame compared to Cain’s primal novel. The Bob Rafelson remake from 1981 (which I have never seen) has often been criticized for having all the violent nature but none of the tragedy or pathos.

I was eager to find another Cain book so I quickly put Mildred Pierce (1941) on hold at the library. What a terrific book. The efficiency in prose is still present but Cain expands himself somewhat; he is in less of a hurry to paint the scene and his fondness for the female form and voice is obvious throughout. I was very taken with middle-aged Mildred and her struggle to provide for her daughters while simultaneously embracing her own ambitions.  The story takes place in 1930’s Glendale California. Class consciousness permeates every chapter. Mildred’s first born Veda is the mouth piece for this theme. Her embarrassment and drive to get out of Glendale is but one factor in Mildred’s ambition to become successful. The dominant and most powerful element of Cain’s story, however, is Mildred’s unwavering love and devotion to Veda. Mildred deals with men, work and other aspects of her life with great fortitude but she is unable to come out from under her primal motherly instincts even as Veda wounds her at every turn. Veda throws occasional scraps of love/gratitude and like Mildred we are foolishly hopeful that the relationship will mend. Mildred’s euphoria and pain increase in scope and magnitude as the story goes on. It’s tough, sharply written melodrama.

The widely seen and praised film from 1945 starring Joan Crawford (who won the academy award) is very good but deviates wildly from the book (which was, at that time, too adult to adapt properly). However, the recent HBO mini-series from 2011 starring Kate Winslet is excellent in every way; capturing all of the important story elements and even elevating them at times. Director Todd Haynes does not take one wrong step and conquers the very difficult task of adapting a classic book. The cast is uniformly terrific. Every single character (including the minor ones) look and sound just right. The original film softened/eliminated much of Veda’s dark side. In Haynes’ adaption, Veda (Evan Rachael Wood) emerges as the terrifying creature Cain created.

Evan Rachael Wood and Kate Winslet as Veda and Mildred Pierce

The film is beautifully lensed by veteran DP Edward Lachman and the entire production is full of handsome details. It’s long. If you have read the book and are a fan I don’t think this will be an issue. There is a joy in watching everything fall into place.

I would definitely recommend reading Cain before seeing Cain. He has become one of my favorite authors. The big three (Postman, Double, Mildred) are what he will always be remembered for. I read a number of his other books written after Mildred Pierce and was mostly disappointed. Serenade (1937 ) which was written between Postman and Mildred is excellent.  He consistently worked until his death in 1977 but never recaptured the success that he enjoyed in the 30s and 40s.

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Art and Commerce: The Master & Argo

Paul Thomas Anderson and Ben Affleck direct.

Just saw Argo. I was not knocked out by it nor did I hate it. It was good. No surprises. It unfolds in that comfort food way where you are always a step ahead of the film but you like it that way. It has great casting -people with interesting faces (I am tired of CSI-type casting where everyone is pleasing to look at in a car commercial kinda way) and plenty of great late 70’s period detail. Affleck is only a few years younger than me so his love of certain 70’s music and films gets all kinds of attention in the art direction and I couldn’t help but love it. Affleck even opens the film with the old 70’s Warner Bros. logo in all of it’s grainy glory (Fincher beat you to the punch Ben when he did the same thing with Paramount’s logo in Zodiac). Ben plays it a little too stoic the whole 2 hours and it is a shame that he seems to have more screen time than the 6 hostages. Having said that, I wish the film would have closed on the hostages post-rescue and not on Ben and his estranged wife whom we have not seen until the very end. That scene, with the shmaltz-o-meter arrow on high,  almost killed the whole movie for me. It was entertaining on the whole. The Hollywood-guys scenes are fun – Alan Arkin is such a joy to watch.

Here is Ben’s face in every scene

Argo is the kind of movie that will make money and win awards because it appeals to a wide audience, it covers an important part of American history and it has Ben in it. It’s a movie studios die for. It has that perfect balance of art and commerce. I would say that it lacks in the art department but it’s a fine piece of entertainment all the same. The movie never really sticks with anyone long enough for you to feel connected. It is gripping in execution but it is dramatically relegated to a smattering of conversations. The final escape (which is the one thing that didn’t actually happen – bummer) is one tense moment after another to the point that plausibility crumbles under cinematic machinery. As the plane lifts off and cop cars are racing behind, one thinks of Jake and Ellwood in the Blues-mobile.   I liked Ben’s hair and beard look. I also loved all those people wearing glasses.

A movie that has made some good coin but not the kind of coin Argo will go on to make is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master which I have seen twice and I think is the one of the best films of the year.  The Master begins and not for one moment do you know where it is going to go. It is written, directed and performed in a way that is uncannily organic. Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are all truly amazing. Pheonix stands out in particular as the recently-returned-home seaman Freddie Quell; a wounded beast of a man. There is a palpable sense of danger in every scene he’s in.

It has considerably less directorial flare than PTA’s previous films (something he is known for) but it gets to higher ground emotionally and in overall resonance. The characters and the film itself project internal knowledge that leave us, the viewer, forced to draw conclusions and make connections; this will frustrate some and beguile others. I was beguiled. I am an admitted fan (see HUGE) of PTA and like great bands that you connect with, I am always anxiously awaiting his next film. He’s good for cinema. He takes it seriously. He is interested in progressing as a filmmaker. Whereas he started out tipping his hat (a little too generously) to Scorsese and Altman in his early films, he has gone on (I would say starting with Punch Drunk Love) to be a confident and important director – I think the best working today.

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Not Show Business But The Business Of Shows #1

This is the first in a series of posts that will offer tales, trials and tribulations of working in the movie theater biz.

Me building a movie circa 1989 at the Tri-County Cinemas 1-5 in Cincinnati.

I have been in the movie exhibition business for 24 years (minus my stint in the Army). It’s been a mostly enjoyable ride. Hollywood spends their millions making their films and then hands off this very expensive product to us in the hope that you will in turn buy a ticket, sit down in a dark room with strangers and watch. A veteran in this industry once told me “we are not show business but the business of shows”. He is mostly right; we are in the business of moving herds of people in and out of auditoriums. But there are moments of genuine pleasure like standing in the back of a crowded theater and listening to an audience laugh uncontrollably or being around a Harry Potter crowd as they line up for a midnight show. There are moments of pure hell, like when the power goes out on a busy Saturday night or when a guy has died in an auditorium (that story will be posted here at some point). As the Everly Brothers once sang “ah, the stories we could tell”.

When I started in 1988 at the Tri-County Cinemas 1-5 in the Cassinelli Square, theater attendance was greater than it is today. That summer we played Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Die Hard, Midnight Run, A Fish Called Wanda and Cocktail. It was not uncommon for most of those to sell out on a Friday and Saturday night (auditoriums had higher seat counts then as well). Yes, we had home video at that point but entertainment at home had not reached the slick plateau we currently reside on. Going out to the movies was a more common event in most households. Moreover, films could easily play 6-10 months (and in a few instances over a year!). That never happens now. The biggest film of 2012 (The Avengers) played roughly 10 weeks.

My friend Tim and I applied at the theater at the same time that summer. Once we had been working there for a few weeks it was apparent to both of us where we wanted to be; in the projection booth. We envied the projectionists. These guys didn’t have to deal with the customers. We never saw them  much because they were upstairs most of the time. We imagined (incorrectly) that they just stood up there and watched movies through the port windows.  Upstairs was this very-low-light, narrow labyrinth of chattering projectors, well worn carpet, strange smells and ash trays. What’s not to like? However, it would be a few months before we were allowed into their secret society. First we had to work in the trenches picking up trash and seating patrons.

To enter an auditorium after it has been filled to capacity with all you filthy people is similar to walking into a crime scene (you may think “minus the blood” but in some instances you would be wrong). The air is filled with a mixture of body funk, popcorn, and a lovely sour odor that forms when spilled soda settles into the bottom of a trash can. It takes courage and youthful ignorance to reach down and quickly pick up all of the things that have been thrown to the floor. I learned a valuable lesson the time I picked up a coke can that immediately felt warmer than it should and also felt completely full. In my hasty grab-lift the contents spilled onto my hand. Yes, someone had utilized said can as a toilet. Theater auditoriums are often filled with evidence of copulations, diaper changing, the flu, etc.

As an usher in those early days it was not uncommon for games to spontaneously form amid the cleaning and chaos. Tossing cups into the trash from great distances was always the most common. These games could occasionally lead to aggressive and destructive behavior. There was one guy I worked with that decided that he wanted to try and throw a half-full soda cup up towards the ceiling to see if he could make it go splat. We never cleaned after the last shows went in; that was left for the actual janitorial crew at the end of the night. So this sometimes led to ushers doing something destructive/messy in an auditorium just for the amusement factor. As I said, this guy decided to throw a large, half-full soda cup at the ceiling. We would have all been amused enough if the cup hit the ceiling and made a mess. We were all thoroughly amused beyond expectation when he hurled the cup up into the air and it miraculously impaled itself on to a fire sprinkler and did not come back down! It just sat there and dripped. I don’t remember how long it stayed up there but it was there for a while and it was no doubt a conversation piece to anyone who happened to look up.

Yes, even though it was dirty work, it was certainly entertaining enough for $3.30 an hour. I was going to wrap it up here but I just remembered something that I have to mention. Smoking. It is strange to think about now but you could smoke your brains out in movie theaters. There were ashtrays all over the place. In the lobby of course but we also had one outside each auditorium door. A common sight was our managers walking around keeping us on task and even talking with customers- all with a cig burning in hand. Ah, the good old days of lots and lots of second hand smoke.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Imax Experience

Watching Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a lesson in how to pace an action/adventure movie. I have seen this film a zillion and one time and it always feels like it just flies by. Every scene is filled with only the essential. Lawrence Kasden’s screenplay gives you what you need and then moves on to the next order of business. The film is in a constant state of movement. The two sequels that followed (and we will just keep Crystal Skull out of this conversation) are fine films that have different qualities about them but neither feel like or hold up as well as Indy’s first adventure (well technically second since Raiders occurs after Temple of Doom). Unlike Temple of Doom and Last Crusade which both have earmarks of the 80’s, Raiders feels like it was made in the late 70’s. It’s sensibilities are reflective of the 70’s. Indiana Jones is a darker character. The story and the action feel more grounded in reality; it’s less cartoonish. It has a gritty, rough and tumble feel to it. The later films would feel more polished/staged as well as the heir of familiarity which wasn’t always a good thing.

It also occurred to me last night that Raiders is Spielberg’s ode to Warner Bros. contract director Michael Curtiz and to the Warner Bros. stable of character actors. With it’s locations and fantastic, albeit minimalist, period art direction; Raiders could easily pass for a Warner Bros. adventure film from the 40’s and Spielberg’s visual style is very similar to Curtiz’s (establishing shots, camera movement, etc). Moreover, it’s not a huge leap to see visual similarities in Spielberg’s actor choices for the roles of Raiders and the Warner contract actors.

Paul Freeman, Paul Henreid, Ronald Lacey, Pter Lorre

(from L to R)Paul Freeman, Paul Henreid, Ronald Lacey, Peter Lorre

Indiana Jones would become a more broadly drawn character in the sequels but in Raiders he is a man of few words and he comes off as a little dangerous. The humor is more subtle and if ever a moment really sells the attitude and tone of Raiders it’s the moment when the giant, bald German calls Indy down off the plane wing to fight. Harrison Ford’s physical lilting reaction, in essence saying “C’mon really?”, sums up Indiana Jones. He wants the path of least resistance but rarely does he get it.

Speaking of that scene, the other thing I noticed was the role of the fist fight. It has always been clear that the whole concept of Indiana Jones was based on Saturday matinee serials and adventure movies of the past. Fist fights were always a major element of serials (and westerns). Spielberg elevates the fist fight here and creates a highly memorable (and bloody) scene. The glorified fist fight would return in all of the Indiana Jones films.

Seeing Raiders in Imax last night was a huge treat. Spielberg did not change or tinker with a thing. The original optical effects are still in place and they still work. The reflection in the glass in the snake pit is still there and it warmed the cockles of my heart. No over-sweetening of the colors. I loved seeing production designer Norman Reynolds work on a huge screen. A good example: Marion’s bar in Nepal with it’s rough/drab structure. It all has a blended together look with few discernible lines. All of this makes the various-colored bottles on the back  bar pop out with subtle distinction. And of course the orange hued fireplace which sells the close-up of Indy in this scene.

Few films have so many memorable scenes. Few films have as much impact on the culture. Spielberg had directed and released 1941 just prior to making Raiders. That film was a colossal failure marked by a painfully long running time and it’s propensity to be bloated and self-indulgent. Spielberg took his lumps and came out of the gate determined to make something that would be the antithesis of his goose egg.

On June 12, 1981 everyone immediately forgot about that goose egg.

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Michael Shannon: Bug (2006) & Take Shelter (2011)

Director William Friedkin made a handful of landmark films in the 70’s and secured his spot as one of the heavyweights of that era.  His output beyond that decade has been inconsistent and often disappointing.  I missed Bug (2006) in it’s theatrical run and only discovered it recently.  If nothing else, for me, it was a major return to form for Friedkin.  There is a palpable sense of creative energy and confidence throughout.

Living in a run down motel and waiting tables at a local bar is Agnes White (Ashley Judd).  Her life has been a steady stream of bad decisions, unbearable guilt and deep rooted pain.  She fears the return of her ex (Harry Connick Jr) who has been recently released from prison. Her one friend R.C. (Lynn Collins)  stops in one night to party a little and brings along her new friend Pete (Michael Shannon).  Pete is quiet, unassuming and a little odd.  Agnes is drawn to his gentleness and sincerity.  Pete is a wounded soul as well and he feels like perhaps he could trust Agnes with his secrets.  And what secrets he has.  By film’s end all involved will be thrust into the darkest corners of paranoia and fear.

Tracy Letts adapted his successful play for the screen.  Friedkin manages to take this small, essentially one set production and inject it with a genuine cinematic sensibility (aided in no small part by sound designer Steve Boeddeker and D.P. Micahel Grady). Friedkin has made an almost musical film; it rises steadily and then explodes much like Grieg’s  In the Hall of the Mountain King. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are more than up to the challenge of carrying this film. Shannon’s presence, in particular, dominates the film. With his large eyes, dominating physique and often diffident voice he projects a mixture of gentleness and danger. There is a raw, manic telepathy going on between the two leads and their total commitment to the bombastic finale is both exhilarating and terrifying.  It’s scary stuff.  You have been warned. It’s worth mentioning that Friedkin has just recently released Killer Joe which also happens to be a play written by Letts.
Michael Shannon also stars in Take Shelter; a character study and cautionary tale that expertly plays on our own fears of our big, scary world and how that affects a simple man just trying to live a simple life.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) has a lovely wife and daughter, a comfortable house and a steady job. He has a modest but seemingly happy life. All of this is put into harms way by something that is coming. The frustrating part is that Curtis doesn’t know what it is but the stormy skies and the menacing flocks of birds seem to be warning him on daily basis. The warnings start becoming more severe.  Moreover, no one but Curtis seems to see or hear these frightening displays of nature. And then there are his nightmares. Nightmares that afflict him unmercifully; literally leaving their mark on him. His instinct to protect his family from the coming horror begins in subtle stages and snowballs into obsession and paranoia. This culminates in Curtis building an underground storm shelter in their back yard.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols does not always go for the obvious here. One nice touch is that instead of just letting Curtis get lost in the mazes of his mind and watching him unravel; Curtis is keenly aware that this could be a mental disorder and he tries his best to address it. Michael Shannon is, once again, amazing at showing a man getting progressively eaten alive by his thoughts and fears. Equally engaging is Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ patient wife Samantha. Chastain is one of the best actresses you’ve never heard of working today (see Tree of Life). There is enormous empathy and understatement throughout Take Shelter where other filmmakers would have gone for something more shocking and immediate.  A very satisfying film.

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