Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Three Films by Michael Ritchie (#1) SMILE (1975)

I decided to write a few posts about the work of a remarkable and very underrated American filmmaker, notable for some outstanding 1970s films: Michael Ritchie (1938-2001). Ritchie directed many popular movies such as Semi Tough (1977) Fletch (1985) and The Bad News Bears (1976), but there are a few that seemed to be overlooked. Last night I viewed Smile (1975) starring Bruce Dern, a razor sharp satire on beauty pageants.

Written by Jerry Belson (writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Odd Couple, among others), Smile is a very wry and acerbic take on America's obsession with beautiful women and competition. Shot in the same documentary style seen in Ritchie's 1969 feature Downhill Racer, Smile is a portrait of the days leading up to the Young American Miss pageant, in which one of the judges, a chipper car salesman named Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern) is more than enthusiastic about. His buddy Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is his polar opposite: self pitying, depressed and disillusioned about his dull suburban life and dissatisfied with his wife (Barbara Feldon) a former beauty queen who is in charge of the pageant.

In the film's opening scene, a contestant is chosen after auditioning by demonstrating how to properly pack a suitcase. The judges cynically choose her for her tits and ass while scoffing at what she's doing on stage. When all the contestants are gathered in Santa Fe, where the pageant is taking place, we meet the usual suspects: the ultra bubbly, optimistic but dumb young girls who develop a fierce sense of competition, including one Mexican girl (Maria O'Brien) who bakes guacamole for the judges and is more than happy to declare her love for her new home in "Amereeca"

One contestant stands out: a quiet and unassuming brunette (Joan Prather) who despite patronizing from the judges, is actually quite bright and uncertain about how to present herself amongst all the cheery and showy young women competing with her. A fellow contestant (Annette O'Toole) confides in Prather's character and gives her tips to give her more of an edge: "Tell them you don't have a father!" she advises. When she is thrown questions by the judges, one of them, a Catholic priest, burdens her with a question about abortion: "I thought a lot about that." she replies, "Then I just thought that I'm so glad I'm too young to vote!"

Another standout character is the show's dance choreographer (Michael Kidd) a Hollywood has-been whose talent is only equal to his pessimistic attitude which provides some sharp laughs. In one scene, he exchanges some harsh words with the show's stuffy organizer (Geoffrey Lewis) "You and I got off to a shaky start. It doesn't have to stay that way." Lewis says; Kidd pauses to think it over and then replies, "No, let's keep it shaky."

Smile is a knowing film that shows 1970s America draped in garish polyester and artificial cheeriness. Almost everything in the film rings true and is more fascinating in a retroactive way since the idea of the 70s is now considered something of mythic relic. One scene involving Andy having a fight with his wife that leads to something unexpected seems too contrived, but with the exception of that scene, Smile is consistently believable and involving. Behind the curtains of this pageant there's a sense of jadedness and banality. Even happy old Big Bob can't sustain his happy go lucky outlook on the proceedings. There's a pageant every year and I doubt the following one brings forth anything new or surprising. Yet so many people involved take it very seriously. Why? I guess it makes them feel important.

R.I.P. Maury Chaykin

Another distinctive and talented character actor has left us. Maury Chaykin, a Canadian actor known for his 100+ film and TV credits, has died on his birthday at the age of 61. Chaykin was born in Brooklyn, New York but moved and made his name as an actor here in Canada. He is notable for roles in Twins (1988) Dances With Wolves (1990) My Cousin Vinny (1992) and was a regular in several Atom Egoyan films such as The Adjuster (1991) The Sweet Hereafter (1997) Where The Truth Lies (2005) and Adoration (2008). Recent TV credits include a cameo as a police chief on Trailer Park Boys and as a hot tempered studio executive based on Harvey Weinstein on HBO's Entourage.

Chaykin also enjoyed his share of accolades in the Canadian film and television industry. He was nominated for three Genie Awards, winning one for his lead role in the 1994 film Whale Music. He most recently shared a Canadian Comedy Award with his fellow cast members of the series Less Than Kind.

One of his final feature films is the upcoming political thriller Casino Jack starring Kevin Spacey.

This year, Chaykin appeared on QTV with Jian Ghomeshi to discuss his work.

My condolences to his friends and family.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My take on texting in the screening room

Last Tuesday a good friend and I went to see Inception at the local AMC Theater. We aimed to catch the 9:00 show but since that sold out quickly, we took in the 9:30. Luckily the film is anticipated enough that it was being screened on multiple screens at every half hour. I expected to see the film in one of the building's larger screening rooms but we ended up in a small auditorium with an average size screen. Why wouldn't AMC put this highly hyped film (which only opened four days ago) on at least three or four of their largest screening rooms? Many people shuffled into the small screening room disappointed at the size and some had a hard time finding a good seat. In my experience working at an independent movie theater, most people show up to a film at the last minute. My friend and I got great seats but two teenage girls showed up later and had to sit a few seats apart from each other. This is when the annoyance began.

Almost immediately, the incessant texting began from both girls on both sides of my seat. Another text offender sitting in the row below me also began. The thing about cell phones, especially iPhones and Blackberries is how insanely bright they are. I'm trying to focus on these large 35mm Cinemascope images but the little lights from these cell phones seem brighter. When the girl seated next to me kept texting, I had to lean forward so I can concentrate my attention on the film. Having these phones in my peripheral is the most distracting thing ever.

Inception is a very good movie. A summer blockbuster that exercises the mind instead of just trying too hard to assault the senses. It doesn't do all the work for the audience. I was thoroughly absorbed by the story but the texting within the crowd was surely a challenge to that. But Inception is made by masters. They know how to make a film that will entertain you, make you think and impress your eyes and boy, does Hans Zimmer's score really compliment all the action. There should be absolutely no reason to focus on anything else but this movie. A text message about what's for dinner, what your boyfriend meant by what he said to you at the bar last night, should be feeble compared to Christopher Nolan's vision being projected for you right at the moment.

However, at the end of the 148 minute film, in which both young girls spent texting to one another, they got up from their seats and began to talk to each other face to face.

"I didn't get it!" one of the girls whined to her friend who sat next to me.

Gosh, I wonder why.

Friday, July 16, 2010

R.I.P. Vonetta McGee

American actress Vonetta McGee, best known for her work in several blaxploitation films of the 1970s, has passed away at the age of 65 after suffering cardiac arrest and being on life support for two days in hospital in Berkeley, Ca.

McGee is a familar face to film fans who love the blaxploitation subgenre popularized by films like Shaft (1971) and Blacula (1973) which McGee had the lead female role in. She also appeared alonside Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in Hammer (1972) with Richard Roundtree in Shaft In Africa (1973) and Max Julien in the western Thomasine and Bushrod (1974). She had a lead role in the thriller Melinda (1972) starring opposite Calvin Lockheart and Jim Kelly. But despite her notable work in "soul cinema", McGee strongly resented being typecast in blaxploitation films but she did have many other diverse credits in her filmography such as acting alonside Clint Eastwood in the 1975 action thriller The Eiger Sanction. One standout role was as a sympathetic widow to Jean Louis Trintignant's mute protangonist in the 1968 spaghetti western The Great Silence, directed by Sergio Corbucci (Django). In 1984, she appeared in the cult classic Repo Man with Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton.

She was also prolific on television, making appearances on Diff'rent Strokes, Starsky & Hutch, L.A. Law, Cagney & Lacey, and EZ Streets. She even had a regular role in the shortlived Robert Blake TV series Helltown.

I find the best way to pay tribute to a talented actor or actress is to show clips of their work for you to enjoy, maybe even for the first time. Take a look at Vonetta McGee in a montage of clips from the haunting film The Great Silence and an interview she did on Soul Train in 1973. By looking at the interview, she was not only a great beauty but she also seemed to be a natural charmer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A sequel that at first seems like a reboot and it's also not a remake

I was relieved while viewing Predators (2010) to realize that it is in fact a conventional sequel and not a tiresome remake or "reboot" or re-imagining or any kind of "re". Robert Rodriguez's production follows the events of the 1987 original, which pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse "The Body" Ventura and other 80s specimens against the vicious, cagey and agile aliens who live to hunt humans for sport. The over the top, but still fairly enjoyable 1990 sequel starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey, took the action to L.A. in which Glover not only had to fight a Predator in the streets but also had to do battle with Morton Downey, Jr. Which enemy was more fierce?

This entry in the series superficially resembles the first film. Tough guys, and one gal, with machine guns and other weapons, are lost in the jungle and are prey for the beasts. But this time, they aren't on any mission. They were mysteriously dropped from the sky into their surroundings and have no idea how they got there. What becomes clear is that all of them are expert killers. Adrien Brody is a no nonsense mercenary, Alica Braga is a sharp shooter, Danny Trejo is an assassin for Mexican drug lords, Louis Ozawa Changchien is a Yakuza member with a sword, Walton Goggins is a murderer, etc. Brody is the first to realize that they have been kidnapped and brought to a planet that is a game reserve for Predators to have some fun.

The film is basically an efficient exercise in sci-fi action. Humans being picked off one by one by the monsters while the survivors panic and try to be lucky enough to survive. Adrien Brody's character inexplicably provides exposition when he has no real reason to. He seems to know everything about the planet and the Predators not too long after falling from the sky. I guess he's just a real observant guy.

After a slow first half, the film kicks into high gear when the humans run into a man who has figured out a way to kill and survive, at the cost of his sanity. This is the character played by Laurence Fishburne, who gives an engaging and eccentric performance as a nutjob who knows more about the enemy than the band of human targets.

The cinematography and editing are first rate. John Debney's music score faithfully draws from Alan Silvestri's original music. What starts out as a run of the mill semi-remake becomes a worthy sequel that was made by people who like and respect the original Predator enough to want to make a new film instead of exploiting the Predator name to make another uninspired remake to throw among the pile. Rodriquez and director Nimrod Antal have crafted an entertaining summer movie that obviously lacks originality or deep imagination, but it manages to deliver nonetheless as a well oil machine. They both get cinematic brownie points here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why celluloid really matters

As the digital age continues and more innovations are created, 35mm film seems to be becoming more part of a by gone era. Many filmmakers still champion celluloid, like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg, but digital seems to seducing movie makers wanting production to be faster and easier. Theater exhibitors have been making the switch and if you know of the irreplaceable look and texture of 35mm, you know that digital and even hi-def are lacking what film has provided for an audience for the past 100 years.

Film preservation is another story but an important one. Martin Scorsese is known for his work in preserving classic and lost films but what many film fans may not be aware of is the work being undertaken to preserve genre and exploitation films that without the intervention of passionate film lovers, are being readied for the dumpster.

Enter the American Genre Film Archive,located in Austin, Texas, which is the largest genre film archive in the world. They are working hard to collect and save prints of classic films that you may have seen at the drive-in in the 1970s or even perhaps on cable TV in the 80s. These films are fading memories of an old era where low budget films with visceral energy and unpredictable action were projected onto screens. Some of these films, whether it's a rare Herschell Gordon Lewis gore movie from the late 60s or an old Sonny Chiba kung fu film, have been transfered onto great DVD releases, but many have not and only exist on film.

I work at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa. It is the city's oldest surviving single screen theatre and we are constantly on the lookout for old prints of great grindhouse classics that people are selling online. One notable score was the 1973 Doris Wishman sexploitation epic Double Agent 73, which is a pristine print with no scratches and all the colour. One wonders if the lady I bought that print from knew what she had!

Check out this video showing how the American Genre Film Archive are doing the lord's work. When I saw this clip, I noticed they have a print of the 1986 Charles Bronson film Murphy's Law, which we have stored at my theatre!



Edward G. Robinson (mis)handles your luggage

When I began watching Larceny, Inc. (1945) I knew only two things: 1. that it was a crime film starring Edward G. Robinson and 2. it was released by Warner Bros. I then figured it was a hard boiled, fast moving gangster picture that Warner was known for in the 1930s. But minutes into the film, when Edward G. Robinson and his slow witted buddy played by Broderick Crawford are playing baseball at Sing Sing prison, did I realize this was a comedy. Physical gags, rapid fire dialogue that Robinson delivers at an eloquent fever pitch put this film alongside the stylings of a Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello movie. Robinson plays Pressure Maxwell, a fast talking and manipulative con and Crawford is Jug, his none too bright partner. On the street, they run into old friend Weepy (Edward Brophy) and together decide to raise some money to start up a dog track. But when they are turned down for a bank loan, Robinson decides to purchase a luggage store from it's kindly old owner (Harry Davenport) in order to be able to drill underground to the adjacent bank next door. But what the three didn't count on was the boom in the luggage business which constantly interrupts their criminal activity in the cellar. A mutual friend, an attractive and whip smart lady named Denny (the very fetching Jane Wyman) soon catches onto their plan and is disheartened to see her friends relapse into crime. To make matters worse, the bank managers enter the store to request that they buy the store from Robinson so they can tear down the cellar wall to expand the bank!

Robinson delivers an energetic and appealing performance as the scheming but still somehow likable con man who is the constant victim of obstacles and bombardment of customers, owners of nearby stores, and a relentless luggage company rep (Jack Carson) who keeps coming into the store wanting dump more inventory onto Robinson. He also develops an immediate attraction for Wyman.

The three would-be bank thieves come across as a sort of variation on the Three Stooges, with Robinson as a well spoken Moe. Even Edward Brophy's voice and behavior resembles Curly Howard's.

The comedy in this film is fast paced and constantly funny. In one memorable moment, Robinson angrily deals with a customer he doesn't want in his store. The man wants the suitcase he purchased gift wrapped and so Robinson crudely and quickly wraps it in brown wrapping paper. "Don't you have any Christmas wrapping?" the customer replies. Robinson then simply adds more brown paper.

The plot thickens when a vicious old prison mate (excellently played by Anthony Quinn) learns of the planned bank heist and flees prison to force himself into the deal. All accumulating into more comic chaos and even unexpected suspense as the film's denouncement takes place on Christmas Eve.

According to imdb.com, Robinson played this role to soften his tough guy image from his earlier gangster pictures like Little Caesar (1930) He still retains an authority but it is offset by his comic foils, making him a perfect straight man here.

Larceny, Inc. was based on a stage play The Night Before Christmas by S.J. Perleman. The film has since been loosely remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks (2000) which substituted the luggage store for a restaurant that sold cookies.

Larceny, Inc. is available via Warner Bros. Home Video's Gangster Collection on DVD. It's highly recommended.