All Together Now

As I’ve taken walks around Schiller Park over the last few days, I’ve noticed that people are interested in publicly expressing their collective community spirit.  The above sign appeared in the window of the Hausfrau Haven, and I’ve seen similar messages chalked onto sidewalks — like “#RallyColumbus.”  It’s all part of an effort by the common folk to show some mutual support, and let their fellow citizens know that we’re all in this together, and that together we will get through our coronavirus trial.

I’m confined to the German Village area, of course, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the signs and sidewalk messages I’ve seen here are just the very small tip of a much larger iceberg that can be found across the country.  Americans have a way of coming together during difficult times, helping each other out, and working to lift each others’ spirits.  Our political representatives might fight like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but the people stand together during the tough times — and messages that express that sentiment in a tangible way, for all to see, really help.  And, of course, there’s a lot more that we can’t see publicly that also reflects a fighting, mutually supportive spirit, like texts among groups of friends and co-workers and e-mail chains and virtual get-togethers and Facebook memes.

The attitude of toughness and resiliency makes me think of one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and video snippets, which appeared at the end of the Yellow Submarine film — All Together Now.  Let’s hope that we can maintain that ‘tude, and it will carry us through. 

Deploying The Digital Undead

Hollywood has made tremendous strides in marrying technology and film.  First it was in deploying high-end “special effects,” using miniatures and models, such as were found in 2001 and Star Wars, then it was in having computers generate images and entire scenes.  More recently, technology has been focused on the human actors, who’ve either been digitally recreated or, as in the recent film The Irishman, de-aged.

james-deanNow we’ve apparently reached a new frontier, where filmmakers believe they can literally raise an actor from the dead and, thanks to the miracle of modern computer, give the actor an entirely new career with new roles.  And the first actor to be targeted is one of Hollywood’s icons:  James Dean.

The moviemakers, acting with the full permission of the Dean family and estate, plan to feed TV footage and still photos of Dean into a computer to create a digital James Dean.  (The real James Dean died in 1955 at age 24, after making only three movies, and immediately rose to legend status, including being the subject of an Eagles song.)  The digital creation will then be moved from the computer to the movie screen with the help of stand-in actors moving through scenes using the motion-capture technology commonly used in CGI filmmaking, and another actor will supply the voice of the digital “James Dean.”

Digital JD is supposed to make his debut in a Vietnam War drama called “Finding Jack” — which seems like a very weird choice, given how closely the real James Dean is associated with the pre-Vietnam War, leather-jacketed bad boy ’50s.  The filmmakers say that they’re not aiming at a one-movie curiosity, but instead hope to give their digital creation an entirely new career that will revive interest in an actor who has been dead for more than 60 years.

Some people are rightly reacting with horror to this effort, which seems desperate and ghoulish.  But it may be the wave of the future in increasingly cash-conscious Hollywood.  Some studios may think:  why worry about developing and casting new acting talent if you can revive Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, and other stars of the past, draw upon their established personas, and avoid dealing with real-life actors’ huge salaries and huge egos?

I’m not a fan of this effort, but I’m also not sure it will work.  James Dean may have been an iconic figure for a particular generation, but how many people under, say, 60 even know about him or have any interest in the films he actually made?  Fame is pretty fleeting in today’s Netflix world, and I’m not sure that the ghosts of stars of the past are going to fit in.

Back To 2001

Every once in a while I read about a museum exhibition that sounds so tantalizing it motivates a desire to take a trip just to see it.  So it is with an exhibit that is opening this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York called Envisioning 2001:  Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey.

2001 - A Space Odyssey - 1968Of course, the exhibit is about 2001:  A Space Odyssey — a masterpiece that is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.  (The British Film Institute’s critics poll, for example, ranks the film as number 6 on the top 100 list of the greatest films of all time.)  Anyone who’s watched the movie — and if you haven’t, you really should — has been mesmerized by the story, the soundtrack, and the many memorable scenes.   From the early ape-like human ancestors stroking the colossal object and learning how to use bones as weapons, to the discovery of the object on the moon, to the docking of the shuttle and the space station set to the strains of The Blue Danube waltz, to the exploits of the murderous HAL computer on the voyage to Jupiter, to the final mystifying scenes with the Starchild and the Stargate, 2001 is a mind-blowing adventure and feast for the senses.  And as you watch, you wonder:  what in the world (or, more appropriately, beyond the world) is happening here?  It’s hard to believe that many critics at the time of its release panned the movie and didn’t recognize its epic scale and greatness — but often the influential scope of books, movies, artistic movements, music, and other creative endeavors aren’t fully appreciated until years later.

The new exhibit offers a peek at the models used in the film’s ground-breaking special effects, the ape costumes worn by actors, and the spacesuits designed for the Jupiter voyage, but the real focus is on digging into what Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were trying to convey — and how they got there.  When you get a chance to look at how a classic was created, how can you resist?

War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

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Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

The Last Star Wars

The new Star Wars is out in the theaters.  The commercials for Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker have been running for a while now, and the expected Star Wars movie hype machine is in full swing.  In one article, for example, a former Disney executive reports that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, felt “betrayed” by the studio’s plans for the last trilogy in Lucas’ contemplated nine-part opus, and fans and critics are already emotionally debating whether this latest film is a disaster or is helping to get the Star Wars franchise back on its footing.

f9c0b8_f7ef85e98f5449c6b4f994a9f6e1507fmv2All of this, I think, is part of the fundamental problem with Star Wars.  It’s clearly a “franchise,” and it feels like a “franchise.”  When the first Star Wars came out 40 years ago it was fresh and new and funny and interesting and ground-breaking in its use of special effects.  Now the Star Wars model is old and tired.  When was the last time somebody had a good laugh, or even a chuckle, at a Star Wars film?  I’m guessing it probably coincides with the last time Harrison Ford was on the screen.  And when you’ve got obsessive fans debating every instant of a film for consistency with what has gone before and comparing it to the eight prior episodes, you’re never going to achieve “fresh” and “fun” status.  Every successive film is weighted down, more and more, by the ponderousness of the Force and the Jedi and the Sith and the increasingly confusing plot lines and story arcs.  How can anybody be expected to keep it all straight?

And the fact that every Star Wars movie seems to involve a lightsaber duel between a good character and a bad character, and a Death Star plot device, and heroes saving the universe from evil and seeking redemption, doesn’t help.  Who here didn’t react to the commercials for the new film with a shrug and the rueful thought that there’s another long lightsaber duel we’re going to have to sit through — like the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, or the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul, or the lightsaber duel by the molten lava that caused Darth Vader to need all of his protective clothing, or the lightsaber duel in the forest.  Lightsabers are nifty, elegant weapons, to be sure, but there are only so many ways to have a lightsaber duel — and changing the setting for the duel really doesn’t change that.  I find myself longing for Han Solo to pop up during one of these interminable lightsaber duels and shake his head and say there’s no substitute for a good blaster.

I’ll go see this newest Star Wars film because I’ve seen the prior eight and I suppose I need to, to close the book on what once was great.  But I’m hoping that this latest Star Wars is the last Star Wars.  Really.  It’s time.

Harriet

Yesterday we had to decide which one-word, proper noun Hollywood movie we would go to see with friends.  It was a tough call, but ultimately we decided on Harriet over Judy and Joker.

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman, the legendary woman who escaped slavery and then devoted her life, and risked her own personal freedom, to help other slaves — ultimately, dozens of them — make their way to liberty via the Underground Railroad.  Harriet Tubman is an American historical figure whose courage and fortitude should always be remembered, and her story is well worth telling.  Harriet does an excellent job of capturing the brutality and inhumanity of the slave-holding system in the Old South, and stage actress Cynthia Erivo gives a brilliant portrayal of the brave, stubborn woman who shed her slave name of “Minty” and blazed her own trail in a crusade for freedom.

Of course, movies can be expected to add their little story-telling flourishes to actual history, and Harriet has its share of familiar Hollywood plot devices.  (You can read about some of the liberties taken with the actual historical record here.)  But the movie doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery, nor does it give short shrift to Harriet Tubman’s intense religious faith and belief that the seizures she experienced were communications from the Almighty.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to identify other recent Hollywood fare where Christian beliefs played such a central role in the  story.

Harriet is well worth seeing — and hopefully, it causes young people who might not be familiar with the life and work of Harriet Tubman to learn more about an extraordinary woman who did extraordinary things.

Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood

After Kish and I went to The Hateful Eight, I swore off ever going to another Quentin Tarantino film.  I meant it, too.  I’d just had enough of seemingly pointless, ultraviolent bloodbaths.

But three years of lots of superhero movies and remakes and uninteresting, formulaic movie fare have a way of undermining your resolve and making you hunger for something different.  Whatever else they may be, Quentin Tarantino films are definitely different than your normal Hollywood fare.  When the hype started building for his new movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, I thought it looked sufficiently different — and decidedly less bloody — to be worth a screening, so Kish and I went to see it yesterday.

once_upon_a_time_still.0The movie acquaints us with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the black-and-white, ’50s TV show Bounty Law who is now relegated to making guest villain appearances on other TV shows and starring in spaghetti westerns, and his stunt double, chauffeur, gofer, and pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they make their way through the Hollywood movie and TV scene of 1969.  Along the way, we see members of the Manson Family, Bruce Lee, some of the singers in the Mamas and the Papas, a party at the Playboy Mansion, and other mainstays of the swinging late ’60s Hollywood scene.

DiCaprio and Pitt are the human stars of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but the real stars are Hollywood itself, and the ’60s.  The movie is a full-on immersion in that time and place, from the cars the characters drive to the clothes they wear to the old-time Hollywood landmarks where the characters meet to the music playing on the car radio to TV shows playing in the background to the huge movie posters for long-forgotten films that you see as the cars with the characters roll by.  It’s almost as if the movie’s plot is an excuse to visit places from days gone by and get a few shots of a well-known restaurant or theater.  And there’s no doubt — the feeling that what you are seeing must be what it was actually like to be a fading star knocking around Hollywood in 1969 is pretty much total.

The setting was thoroughly convincing, but most people don’t go to films just to revel in the setting.  We’d like a little plot with the fantasy world, and that’s where Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood falls short.  The movie is less bloody than other Tarantino efforts, for sure.  It wouldn’t be a Tarantino product without some gore, but at least the violence is pretty much limited to the end of the film.  And the film is well-acted by both DiCaprio and Pitt, and you definitely come to like the ever-emotional Dalton and the tough, common-sense Booth and appreciate their unique friendship.

But there are a lot of diversions along the way, like scenes of the Sharon Tate character watching herself in a movie theater or flashbacks that happen when Booth is repairing a TV antenna, that don’t really seem to advance the story and make the movie overlong.  As is always the case with a Tarantino movie, there are some great scenes sprinkled in — I particularly liked some taut scenes about Dalton acting as the guest-villain in a TV western, and a tense encounter between Booth and the full, creepy Manson clan at a ramshackle movie ranch — but there’s also a lot of fluff in the package.  And ultimately the final, bloody encounter between Dalton, Booth, a well-trained hound, and the Mansonites seems like little more than a convenient way to bring the movie to a close.

Quentin Tarantino obviously has a huge amount of talent, and few directors can pull you to the edge of your seat like he can.  But boy . . . he sure could use an editor.  You wonder what kind of quality he could produce if he worked with a more focused script and a producer who is willing to leave some of the film on the cutting room floor.