Film Studies

Turkey and Cheesecake

Evidently, it used to be A Thing to photograph Hollywood starlets in silly holiday-themed scenarios involving oversized, seasonally appropriate props — giant jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, giant fireworks rockets for the Fourth of July, etc. And this practice was evidently A Thing for a very long time, as I’ve seen examples of it from the Silent Era up through the 1960s or thereabouts. (Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame did a lot of these.) For today, allow me to share with you one of my favorites from this genre, featuring the lovely Mary Philbin.

Philbin was a busy actress during the 1920s and is best-known today for playing Christine in the original Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Although her career mostly ended with the coming of talking pictures, she dubbed her own voice for a special 1930 reissue of Phantom, when it was given a synchronized score, sound effects, and some limited dialog scenes. She died in 1993, at the age of 90.

I have no idea when this photo was taken, but at a guess I’d say it was around the same time she appeared in Phantom, the mid-1920s. It always makes me smile. Hope it does the same for you.

thanksgiving_mary-philbin+turkeyHappy Thanksgiving to my Loyal Readers everywhere!


The Future Is Now…


Did you feel that? A kind of a tremor, as if some cosmic tumbler clicked into place? Or maybe it was a thunderclap of air being displaced by an object that wasn’t there a moment ago. Whatever it was, it brought with it a definite sense of… arrival. As if the world has finally caught up to something…

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you obviously didn’t spend any time on social media today, because it seemed to be the only thing on everybody’s minds. You see, today — October 21, 2015 — is the future date to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown time-travel from the year 1985 in the Back to the Future movies. The Internet being what it is, this was reason enough for today to become a sort of de facto online holiday. The memes and jokes were inescapable on Facebook, as was the complaining about how our actual 2015 doesn’t much resemble the one depicted in Back to the Future II, which was released in 1989. (I would argue that 2015 actually does have much in common with the fictional one. No, we don’t have hoverboards or flying cars, but our society is consumed with nostalgia, modern cars are pretty funny looking, and we are all eagerly awaiting the next high-numbered sequel in an old film series from the 1970s…)

Naturally, commercial entities were eager to hop onto the event’s coattails. Pepsi rolled out a limited edition “Pepsi Perfect” collector’s bottle like the one seen in BTTF II, complete with a retro-futuristic commercial that’s pretty entertaining. Nike announced it was coming out with self-lacing sneakers like the ones Marty sports in the movie, and made certain that Michael J. Fox got the first pair. (I have to confess, the video of him trying them on made me a little teary-eyed, as his Parkinson’s Disease is obviously advancing; it’s so damn sad what’s happening to him.) Toyota introduced its Mirai automobile, powered by a futuristic hydrogen fuel cell, with a long-form video featuring Fox and his co-star Christopher Lloyd, as well as some familiar-looking locations. Marvel Comics unveiled a cover design for an issue of its Deadpool & Cable title that mimics the familiar Back to the Future poster art. And there was a sweetly sentimental spot with Lloyd delivering a “message from Doc Brown,” which of course ends in a commercial pitch for a new BluRay collection of the trilogy.

Even the White House got into the spirit by declaring today “Back to the Future Day” and hosting a series of discussions on futurism and related topics.

Closer to home, Salt Lake’s arthouse cinema, the Tower Theater, held a marathon screening of the trilogy (complete with a Delorean out front!), and my own corporate overlords ran the movies on the big flatscreens in a couple of our conference rooms. Too bad I had too much work to do.

You know, the funny thing about all this is that I was working at a movie theater when Back to the Future II came out, and I remember it doing fairly well at the box office, but it was hardly a tremendous phenomenon. And even the original film, as big a hit as it was — and it was huge back in the day — never struck me as being, well, that big a deal. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I had the poster on my bedroom wall, the soundtrack in my Walkman, and a Marty McFly-style denim jacket. And it’s a movie that has remained reliably and pleasantly watchable over the years. But if you’d have told me back in 1985 that three decades hence we would be making such a big fuss about a date we briefly glimpse on an LED readout in an old movie… well, I never imagined there would be a bigger uproar over a reboot of Ghostbusters than friggin’ Star Trek, either, so what do I know?

Some people have been kind of churlish about Back to the Future Day, posting that it wasn’t a very good movie anyway and they’re sick of hearing about hoverboards, etc. etc. I can see that. But personally I found today’s silliness a refreshing break from the usual hostility and political sniping… for one day, we were all posting about something other than gun control, abortion, and Donald Trump.

There’s only one thing that bothers me. Now that this momentous date has finally passed and we are most assuredly living in the unwritten future… what now?



Yakety Max

As my Loyal Readers no doubt recall, I wasn’t overly keen on Mad Max Fury Road, a position that put me at odds with many friends as well as much of the Internet in general. My biggest issue with the film — aside from my utter boredom with Tom Hardy in the title role — was that I found it too over the top compared to the (relative) plausibility of the original Max films starring Mel Gibson.

However, every film buff knows that music has a tremendous influence over how an audience responds to the images on the screen. The marriage of the visual with the proper musical selection can raise a lump in your throat, coax the tears from your eyes, chill you to your core, or lift your heart all the way to heaven. A good film score can make the mundane soar… or the outrageous seem entirely natural. For example, witness how much better Fury Road would’ve worked with a, ahem, somewhat different soundtrack:

Tip of the chrome-studded leather hat to… yes, that Heavy Metal, or at least the magazine it was based on, now living online like all the other detritus from my misspent youth…


In Memoriam: James Horner

james-hornerThe news started rippling out across social media last night before authorities had even confirmed the identity of the body: the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner was dead, killed in a plane crash.

I write about celebrity deaths all the time; it’s kind of become the schtick I’m known for, weirdly enough. I write about the ones that produce an emotional response in me, the ones I feel some degree of sorrow about. Some of them affect me more than others, especially if they’re sudden and/or unexpected. I’m positively numb over this one.

I’ve always had a few movie soundtracks in my music collection, going all the way back to the double-LP Empire Strikes Back album, but my interest in the genre really took off when I was working that notorious theater job in my early 20s, when I was immersed in the movie industry and exposed to film music constantly. Horner quickly became a favorite of mine, second only to the master, John Williams. He wasn’t always the most inventive of composers — he had a habit of reusing certain melodies and effects over and over, something I’m sure Kelly will address with more expertise than I can when gets around to writing about this — but he was a solid and prolific craftsman who turned out a lot of work that I love.

There’s not much else I can say right now. I don’t have any anecdotes about James Horner or his work, no personal recollections to speak of, beyond “I like his stuff.” And really, Horner’s music kind of says it all anyhow. So I’m going to take the easy way out and just share some of my favorite pieces with you, my Loyal Readers. I hope you’ll take the time to play the clips below, and that you’ll like what you hear. This music has, in a sense, been the soundtrack to my own life. Or at least a part of that soundtrack.

First up is a pulse-pounding track from Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which accompanies the scene in which the Colonial Marines have made contact with the xenomorphs and are getting their asses handed to them; back aboard the armored personnel carrier, their inexperienced lieutenant is paralyzed with indecision, until Ripley finally takes matters into her own hands and seizes control of the APC and drives to the rescue. It’s some of the most adrenaline-triggering film music ever recorded, in my humble opinion:

If that sounds really familiar to you, it’s probably because it was became the standard “action-movie cue” used in countless trailers for several years during the ’90s. For an interesting exercise, compare it to “Surprise Attack” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). This is the moment when the Enterprise encounters another Federation starship, not realizing it’s under the command of the villainous Khan, who closes to point-blank range before opening fire on our unsuspecting heroes. You’ll hear a lot of similarities to the Aliens piece, including something I’ve never been able to identify but which sounds (to me) like someone rapping on a pipe with a drumstick, a sort of “ting ting” effect. But while Horner is guilty of relying on some of his favorite tricks on this one — the general sound goes back to Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as far as I’ve been able to determine — he also introduces a nautical feel, suggesting the starships are two giant galleons exchanging broadsides under full sail. And he subtly incorporates a little flourish from the original Star Trek television series and a couple of callbacks to the cosmic weirdness that Jerry Goldsmith created for the previous installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, making this score, in many respects, the most “Star Trek-y” of them all:

For Glory, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film about the first African-American infantry unit to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, Horner incorporates a vocal chorus and a generally softer tone. I’ve always found this track, from near the movie’s climax, especially moving. Its elegiac tone as the men of the 54th Massachusetts prepare for what they know is likely a suicide mission, followed by the rising pace of the martial drums as they begin their final charge, breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it:

And finally, here’s the main title from what is probably my favorite James Horner score, The Rocketeer (1990). It’s beautiful, upbeat, optimistic, and it perfectly captures the feeling of leaving the ground. A couple weekends ago, Anne and I took her father for a ride on a historic B-17 Flying Fortress, and this was what I heard in my mind as the runaway started to roll past the gunport I was looking through, and then fell away as the big old bird slipped into the crystal-clear sky with more grace than you’d expect…

Although the selections I chose here are all 25 years old (or more, in the case of Khan), Horner was no has-been. He worked steadily from 1978 right up to the present moment, and no doubt had a lot left to do. Three films featuring scores by him are due out this year: Wolf Totem, The 33, and Southpaw. He was only 61.


Christopher Lee on Escapism


Science-fiction and fantasy are utterly mainstream these days, and superheroes of various descriptions are as plentiful in movies and on TV as private eyes were back in the 1980s. And yet, despite a level of mass acceptance that I couldn’t have imagined when I was a nerdy little kid living in fear of getting teased for liking stories about spaceships and robots, I still have moments when I feel like I need to defend the merits of this stuff. As popular as SF&F (as folks in the know call it) has become, there’s still a snotty assumption made by many people that it’s just silly kid-stuff… superficial trifles that are beneath the attention of true cineastes. Or at least ought to be. Even people who’ve made their careers by participating in this genre occasionally fret that grown-ups aren’t really justified in enjoying it. And it really bugs the shit out of me.

For one thing, I could make a case that something like the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe actually is quite meaningful, if you’re willing to attune yourself to and look a little more deeply than the surface-level “stuff blow up good” veneer. But even if a given superhero movie or a story about spaceships and robots really doesn’t have much to say about the human condition, so what? I tried to be a film snob in my younger days, I really did. It didn’t stick. Because on some fundamental, instinctual, hell, probably molecular level, I knew what it takes the title character of the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels an entire movie to figure out: that there is value in escapism for its own sake.

The mesmeric film star Christopher Lee, who passed away yesterday at the enviably advanced age of 93, understood this too. Here’s something he said in an interview given 12 years ago. He was speaking specifically of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but it applies equally well to any genre movie or trashy “airport novel,” in my opinion:

…we all love to dream. We don’t live in a particularly attractive world. I don’t really remember, except as a small boy, anything but a pretty grim world. I’m old enough to have seen Hitler in the flesh. I’m old enough to have been in Munich in 1934, on the night of the long knives, when Hitler butchered so many of his own people. I’m old enough to remember the Second World War and all the other things. So I’m not being a Cassandra, who prophesied nothing but evil and misery; I’m simply facing reality. So, yes, let us not lose faith, let us be optimistic, let us believe in the good things, but we still have to face the world as it is. When you live in a world like that, what do you want? You want to escape, to get out of this world from time to time, into another world, a magical world, an enchanted world, where things happen we dream about, a world of fairy stories and wizards. It is like the conjurer, the enchanter, or magician who says, “Look, nothing up my sleeve. When I do this, you will come into my enchanted world!”  Dreaming, escaping, that is what we’re talking about. I firmly believe that is why this kind of film is so universally popular, and always will be, because people like to get into another world.

Amen, sir. Thanks for helping to bring so many of those other worlds to life…

Via Boing Boing.



My introduction to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films was Army of Darkness, the third entry in the series and the one that’s the least “Evil Dead-ish” of them all. (It’s more “Ray Harryhausen meets The Three Stooges” than “the ultimate experience in grueling terror,” which was the tagline for the original Evil Dead.) It’s also my favorite of the series, which I’m sure would disgust the hard-core fans of the franchise and means I’m probably not the target audience for the upcoming cable-TV continuation, Ash vs. Evil Dead. Nevertheless, the teaser that hit the ‘nets today makes me a little giddy:

I really like the ideas behind this series, i.e., it’s set in current time and takes the age of star Bruce Campbell into account; that Ash (Campbell’s character) has, ahem, problems based on his earlier experiences; that the Deadites (the evil of the title) have been quiet for 20 years (the real-world time since Army of Darkness) but are now roaring back to life; that Ash is some kind of whacked-out Obi-Wan Kenobi figure for a couple of younger sidekicks; and that there’s a mysterious woman (played by Lucy Lawless of Xena fame) hunting Ash, because she blames him for the Evil loose in the world (and she’s right!). Basically it sounds like Raimi and Campbell, along with producer Rob Tapert, have really worked out how to logically continue this franchise decades after the last entry, rather than just rebooting it or recasting a younger actor or pretending no time has passed.

You can read up on the details here, if you’re so inclined; Ash vs. Evil Dead will premiere on the Starz network this fall…


John Williams on Guitar

This is nifty… a guy named John Huldt has arranged several of John Williams’ best-known movie themes for acoustic guitar and recorded a medley of them. I’ve heard music from the Star Wars movies performed in a number of idioms — I even own a CD of Star Wars “lounge” music — but this minimalist approach yields some pretty interesting results, in particular the Superman theme, which takes on a subtly Mexican sound, and the theme from Jurassic Park, which I’ve always thought was one of Williams’ greatest pieces, a simple little melody that at various points in the movie conveys grandeur, wonder, adventure, and deep melancholy. In Huldt’s hands, it’s simply lovely… I wouldn’t mind an entire album of this stuff!


Review: Mad Max Fury Road


I am baffled by the level of hype surrounding director George Miller’s return to the Max Max mythos. As of this morning, Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, is showing Fury Road has a 98% positive rating, out of 211 reviews counted. That’s highly unusual; I’d wager most films don’t crack 75% on that thing. Meanwhile, the fanboy gushing on social media has become frankly kind of embarrassing. One of my Facebook friends actually compared seeing this film to losing one’s virginity; he said something to the effect of, “You know going in that’s going to be good, but it turns out to be so much more than you imagined.” Um, yeah… okay. I saw Fury Road last night and, well… it wasn’t like that.

It’s an okay movie. It’s well-crafted and entertaining enough, and the visuals are frequently quite beautiful, if stark. It has some interesting ideas underlying the mayhem. But overall I just don’t see what everybody is losing their damn minds about. The only thing I can figure is that it’s been so long since anyone saw a movie with real stuntmen facing real danger on real machines, in service of action scenes that are actually intelligible, that people are getting kind of drunk on the idea. Or something.

I should probably stipulate that I am a big fan of the original Max trilogy that starred Mel Gibson, especially The Road Warrior, or Mad Max 2 as it’s known in much of the rest of the world. But this isn’t another case of me stamping my feet and getting in a snit over one of my personal touchstones getting remade by the insatiable Hollywood branding machine. Honest. I really tried to keep an open mind with this one, and in any event, it’s never quite clear if Fury Road is meant to be an out-and-out reboot anyhow. There’s nothing in the film that suggests this Max is the same character that Gibson played, but there also isn’t anything to suggest that he isn’t. There are some nice callbacks to the earlier films — I especially liked a subtle one that I’m willing to bet most viewers missed, involving a little hand-cranked music box, which was one of my favorite bits in The Road Warrior — but these are more echoes than specific references to any events from Gibson’s trilogy. And while Fury Road doesn’t fit anyplace in the timeline of the originals, I never got the sense that this one was intended to displace the earlier films either. Rather, it’s just… another Max Max story. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as an alternative Max story, maybe a glimpse of the Max from a parallel universe or something.

I suppose that’s my issue with the movie, now that I think about it. It never feels like it’s happening in our world. Everything is too outlandish, too over-the-top. The original trilogy — well, the first two, anyhow — had a fairly modest scope, in part because of their limited budgets, but also because of the stories they were telling. They were human-scale stories, and that was a big part of what I’ve always liked about them. I’ve always been able to imagine the people in those stories were once backyard hot-rod enthusiasts like my dad, forced into doing whatever they could to survive as the world fell apart around them. It felt real, in some way, or at least plausible, and that was what made it all so powerful… and so frightening. Fury Road, by contrast, is consciously designed to be epic; George Miller cranked the knob up to 11… and then broke it off. The vehicles, the costumes, the bad guys’ lair, the landscape… none of it looked recognizably devolved from our modern-day civilization so much as the phantasmagorical fantasy of a half-insane gearhead tripping on ‘shrooms while listening to an Iron Maiden album. I’ll be honest, the production design in Fury Road reminded me less of the classic Mad Max trilogy than Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zonewhich, as I recall, was widely panned back in 1983 for being derivative of, yes, The Road Warrior.

And then there’s Tom Hardy, the actor who’s replaced Gibson in the title role. A number of my friends are just ga-ga for this guy, but again I’m the odd man out in that I just don’t see the appeal. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge him based on this movie, as Max is pretty underwritten in Fury Road — I think he has a dozen lines of dialog, maybe? — but I can’t detect much in the way of charisma or magnetism coming from him. As Max, he’s a far more anonymous presence than Gibson was. It’s not that I can’t abide another actor assuming the role; it’s that Hardy brought nothing to the role, in my opinion. He was just… there.

I’m not saying Mad Max Fury Road was a bad movie. It’s not. But I never once felt the adrenaline surge I still experience while watching The Road Warrior. And I doubt I’m going to want to see it again, or remember much about it a year from now. So when I read all the breathlessly enthusiastic comments out there in the InterWebs, when I hear people saying it’s the best movie of the year so far and they just can’t get over its awesomeness, I wonder if I saw the same movie everybody else did.

I suppose this is just one more example of how out of touch with popular culture I’m becoming. I’ve been out of sync with my peers a lot over the past couple of years, liking things other folks say are mediocre, not liking the stuff everybody else is wetting themselves over. I don’t understand what’s happened, where and when I disconnected, and it troubles me. I don’t like being the cranky dissenter all the time. I don’t like feeling like everybody else is in on something that I’m incapable of perceiving. But I guess there isn’t much I can do about it. You like what you like, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch a real Max Max movie…


Friday Evening Videos: John Carpenter’s “Night”

One of my favorite directors is John Carpenter of Halloween fame.

Although his career largely fizzled out in the 1990s, he was the mind behind behind at least six bona fide classics of either horror or science-fiction filmmaking — and possibly more, depending on your personal preferences — all produced during an extraordinary ten-year run that began with the aforementioned Halloween in 1978 and ended with 1988’s They Live. During that period, he was cranking out a new feature film every year, as well as writing and producing other things that he did not direct himself. Most of these projects were box-office failures when they were originally released, but later found their audiences on home video. Two of Carpenter’s movies from this period — Escape from New York and The Fog — are pretty consistently in my personal top ten, and the rest of them are among my favorites, not counting Prince of Darkness (1987), which is well made but has never really grabbed my socks, and They Live, which was a great premise that didn’t quite come together, in my opinion.

Carpenter movies have a certain distinct atmosphere, in part because of the way they’re shot. Inspired by the legendary directors John Ford and Howard Hawks, Carpenter prefers widescreen formats (his favorite being anamorphic 2.35:1, if that means anything to you), and this helps give even his smallest-budgeted films a big, immersive environment. But I think the more important component of “the Carpenter feel” is the music, which he himself composed and performed in most of his significant works. Based on synthesizers, and enhanced with piano and occasionally guitars, Carpenter’s movie music is minimalistic, moody, evocative, and as distinctive as his camera work.

Which brings me at last to this week’s video selection. Carpenter hasn’t directed a feature film since 2010 (and may not ever again, considering his last film’s dismal performance), but he has continued to noodle with music, and just three months ago released his first non-soundtrack album, Lost Themes. As the title suggests, the album sounds very much like music from Carpenter films you’ve never seen, in particular the track “Night,” which to my ear belongs in a good sequel to Escape from New York that we didn’t get (as opposed to the dismal sequel/remake/spoof/hot mess Escape from LA). The video for the tune is interesting, too, looking like something from the ’80s with its night-time cityscapes, Miami Vice-style driving shots, and weird sodium-vapor lighting, and yet curiously modern in that Carpenter himself appears to be using a virtual-reality rig to control a member of Daft Punk. If you, like me, tend to sit up by yourself way too late on Friday nights, I think you’ll find it’s the perfect soundtrack to whatever you’re up to…



How Do You Feel?

I do a lot of fretting/grumbling/navel-gazing here — well, everywhere, really — about getting older, feeling older, fearing I’ve lost touch with popular culture, being past my prime… hey, you’ve read the posts. But something occurred to me this morning:

In recent years, I’ve lost a lot of the weight I unwisely stacked on in my thirties.

Thanks to my LASIK surgery two weeks ago, I have my original, un-bespectacled face back.

In the next few months, we’ll be seeing a new Mad Max film, a new Jurassic Park film, a new Terminator, another Mission: Impossible, and, lest we forget, a new Star Wars episode.

And of course next year’s presidential election will likely be between a Clinton and a Bush.

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s like I’m young again!

Either that, or suffering a massive case of deja vu.