Friday, July 25, 2014

Beatlemania? We're Just Getting Started...

There’s so much that can be (and has been) said about A Hard Day’s Night that I could never add anything substantial to a further discussion, but I can tell you that the new Criterion release/restoration of the film is a must-have, whether you’re a Beatles fan, a film lover, or just someone who enjoys important events in pop culture. 

A Hard Days’ Night, however, goes far beyond just being an entry in the history of pop culture. It came at just the right time - just weeks after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, turning what was already a phenomenon into something that’s still going strong 50 years later and shows no signs of stopping. 

If you want to read just a few essays about the film, there’s no better place to start than Roger Ebert’s blog, where you can read at least four substantial posts. Then read the review of the release at All of the supplements are excellent. And since this is still a dual format package, you’re getting both the Blu-ray and two DVDs (one for the film, one for the supplements) for one price. 

And if this doesn’t scratch your Beatles itch, I’ve got another item for you: Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Volume 1, which so far (I’m 200 pages in) is superb. The book is painstakingly researched and detailed and just a lot of fun to read. Yes, it’s 944 pages AND it’s only the first of three projected volumes, so pace yourself. 


Monday, July 21, 2014

The Small-Town Movie Theater is Not Dead!

While we were on vacation last week, I knew we had to stop at the Star Theater in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, an independent locally-owned movie theater that’s been showing movies since 1928. The theater - run by Jeanne Mozier and Jack Soronen - is open Thursdays through Sundays for one 8:00 pm show (as well as an occasional Sunday matinee). The price? $4.50 for adults and $4 for kids under 12. With those prices, you’d think you’re going to see movies that are at least a year or two old, right?

Nope. These are first-run movies - maybe not in their first week of release, but still pretty current. When we were there last week, we just missed X-Men: Days of Future Past, but did see Edge of Tomorrow. Starting August 21, you’ll be able to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at the Star, just a little over a month after its initial release. (I should probably also mention that there’s not another movie theater around Berkeley Springs for 40 miles.) 

I paid Jack for our tickets and couldn’t help noticing he used an old-fashioned red mechanical punch cash register, which still does the job quite well. I also couldn’t help noticing that Jack seemed not only pleasant, but genuinely excited about opening the doors and welcoming customers, something he’s undoubtedly done thousands of times over the years. 

As we walked into the theater, I told my wife I was having a dej√° vu moment. The seats and their arrangement looked exactly like the ones we had at the Town Theater in Forest, Mississippi where I grew up: wooden-backed seats covered in red leather (although I don’ t think the seats at the Town were red) and a long center section with ten-seat rows flanked on either side by a strip of four or five-seat rows. Interspersed were a few couches, which you could enjoy for an extra fee (50 cents). 

Most of the seats I noticed were in good shape, but a few looked like they’d seen better days. Still, the theater seats 325, so a few imperfections isn’t too bad. (And hey, there are always the couches...) 

Digitalization has been the kiss of death for many small-town theaters in America, but the Star has managed to stand strong, having upgraded to a digital projector in 2013, which is pretty much essential these days. The picture looked great throughout, and although the sound quality was not as strong as the picture, it certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch. 

My visit to the Star held many moments of nostalgia, but I realized the best aspect of the experience is one I hadn’t thought of in decades, probably because I hadn’t experienced it since the last time I visited the Town Theater in Forest: community. 

When you think about it, when you walk into a movie theater these days, you only know the people who came to the movie with you. Sure, you might see one or two other people you know, but that’s usually about it. Growing up in a small town going to the movies, you knew everyone there. You’d see friends and people from school there, even if they weren’t sitting with you at the time. And when the movie was over - or maybe later at school - you could talk about the movie, act out scenes, and generally fanboy/fangirl over the stars. That was a shared community that you don’t really have anymore at the local cineplex. True, part of that sense of community comes from living in a small town, and another part is the recognition that movies were sometimes the only game in town, but there’s something about that community aspect that’s been lost with the demise of the small-town movie theater. 

But not so in Berkeley Springs. I saw people talking to each other about the movie they’d just seen and about how they’d see each other at the next movie next week. I don’t know how many of these people knew each other, but they obviously felt some type of connection. They’d all seen the same movie and - for a brief time - they were all a part of that movie-going community. They shared something in common, even if it only held them together for a couple of hours. 

Of course we can still share that sense of community, even in larger theaters and even in watching movies in our homes. But it’s not the same. It’s similar to - but not quite the same as - watching your local sports teams (amateur up to professional) play live. Win or lose, there’s always something to talk about and if you have season tickets, you know you’re going to see those people again soon. But the movies are different. We all walk in to a darkened room, see the same presentation, and are taken to another world. Sometimes that world is one of wonder and magic, and sometimes it’s a world much like our own. We can laugh, cry, cheer, yell, and get the pants scared off of us in various ways, but when we walk back out into the real world, we know that we’ve experienced something together. That something is passing away with the shrinking number of small independent movie theaters, but thankfully is still alive and well at the Star Theater. Thank you, Jeanne and Jack. Keep up the good work - I hope to see you again soon.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Spielberg Collection on the Way

On October 14, 2014, Universal will release Steven Spielberg Director's Edition Blu-ray, which includes these eight films:

Duel (Made for TV 1971)

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Jaws (1975)

1941 (1979)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Always (1989)

Jurassic Park (1993)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The retail price for this set is two pennies under $200. You can save a whopping 10% by preordering from Amazon for $179.98.

I'm going to pass on this one. While I love several Spielberg films, appreciate others, and avoid others like the plague (and for me, there's some of all of these in this collection), I'll be content with the two that I already own from this set: Jaws in Blu-ray and Duel on DVD. E.T. and Jurassic Park are always slightly tempting, but I've resisted so far. I know they had to put some of the duds in this collection, otherwise what would you do? Maybe put out a You Failed Collection with all the films carrying Rotten Tomatoes scores below 70, which would be 

Always 64%
The Terminal 61%
Lost World: Jurassic Park 52%
1941 32%
Hook 31%

What's interesting about this new set is that it completely skips Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its chronology (released after Jaws and before 1941). And does that mean the next set (and it seems obvious there will be a next set or sets) might include The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Hook and others? (The Indiana Jones movies, of course, have already been collected.) Maybe Empire of the Sun will be reserved for The Depressing Spielberg Edition, where it might join Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Armistad? I can't really see those films standing alongside some of Spielberg's others. 

I can see a science fiction set, though, including Minority Report, A.I. and War of the Worlds. Or maybe a historical set. 

What would YOU like to see?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ripley’s Game (2002) Liliana Cavani

If you’ve never heard of Ripley’s Game, you’re not alone. Most moviegoers missed the film, largely due to the fact that it was never released theatrically in America. At the time, the film’s distributor Fine Line (part of New Line Cinema) was so busy promoting the final film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, that Ripley’s Game got lost in the shuffle. As a result, many people never saw one of John Malkovich’s finest performances in what may be the best of the Ripley movies, which is no small feat. 

That list of films includes Purple Noon (1960), The American Friend (1977), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Ripley Under Ground (2004), with Tom Ripley portrayed by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper respectively. Malkovich is a much older actor playing a much older Tom Ripley than in any of the other Ripley films and that maturity - both in the actor and the role - adds a tremendous amount of depth to the film. 

Malkovich’s Ripley has always known how to exist keeping his crimes under the radar. No, “exist” is rather inaccurate; Ripley knows how to thrive as a criminal, which he does living in an Italian villa with his wife and a large assortment of the finer things that money (stolen or earned, which is often the same thing) can buy. He’s always been confident, but now, approaching middle-age, Ripley is patient, precise, and unshakable. Oh, and deadly.  

At a dinner party, a man named Trevanny (Dougray Scott) tells a group of guests that his neighbor Tom Ripley is just another American with “too much money and no taste.” He says this just as Ripley enters the room, hearing Trevanny’s entire rant. The next few moments are priceless as Ripley completely controls the situation as the dinner guests hold their collective breath. 

One of Ripley’s former partners, a British man named Reeves (Ray Winstone) - whom Ripley can barely tolerate - needs Ripley to kill a man for him. Ripley refuses, but tells Reeves that no one would ever suspect someone who’s completely innocent, someone like Trevanny. Ripley reasons that Trevanny - who has a terminal illness - has nothing to lose and the job would help provide for his family after his death. But such things never turn out quite the way we expect. 

If you’ve read any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels or seen any of the aforementioned films, you know that Ripley is going to wreak some serious havoc, which he does. It should come as no surprise that Malkovich is certainly up to that task. Neither should it surprise you that the film includes several instances of dark humor, particularly in one scene on a train. What is surprising is that we see something of Tom Ripley’s humanity in some unexpected ways, both in the manner in which he treats women and in some of the revelations he experiences. Ripley’s Game is one of those films that’s intelligent, fun, suspenseful and well-acted, certainly one you should not miss.  


Sunday, July 06, 2014

Where You Can See Life Itself

I'm very pleased that Life Itself, the documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, is finally playing in select theaters, but really disappointed that it's only showing in one theater locally, the E Street Cinema in Washington DC. You can find a complete list of theaters here, at least through the month of July. And not one theater in Maryland... (Nice going, AFI Silver.) The list also states that you can rent the film through Amazon Streaming and iTunes for $7, which I might actually do. Matt Zoller Seitz reviews the film here

Friday, July 04, 2014

Movies Watched in June 2014

June was a sad, sad month for movies, perhaps an all-time low. My excuse? I did read a lot in June (33 books and graphic novels) and I watched probably three seasons of Breaking Bad with my wife (her first time; my second). So here’s the very short list:

The Invisible Man (1933) James Whale [Universal Monsters Collection Blu-ray] (2x)

You can read my full review here


The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock [Criterion Blu-ray]

One of Hitchcock’s final British films before coming to America, The Lady Vanishes takes awhile to get going and dwells on some establishing scenes a little too long, but once the train gets moving (literally and metaphorically), the film is quite a treat. 

While traveling by train, a young English woman (Margaret Lockwood) meets an elderly woman named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who mysteriously disappears. Stranger still, no one on board has any recollection of Miss Froy. Extras on the Criterion Blu-ray include:

Audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder

Crook’s Tour (1941), an additional feature film starring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott from The Lady Vanishes

Excerpts from the 1962 famous Truffaut/Hitchcock audio interview

Mystery Train, a video essay about The Lady Vanishes by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff

New essays by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and Hitchcock scholar Charles Barr

The usual gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional art


The Cooler (2003) Wayne Kramer [DVD]  

Previously discussed here


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

They Made Me a Criminal (1939) Busby Berkeley

With all the talent associated with They Made Me a Criminal, it should be a much better film. For starters, you’ve got Busby Berkeley - a man who made his name with a long string of hit musicals - directing. Next, you have John Garfield in his second major film, Claude Rains in a supporting role, and James Wong Howe as the film’s cinematographer. 

Yet They Made Me a Criminal isn’t a very good film, even for 1939. Heck, especially for 1939, American cinema’s golden year. Garfield plays Johnny Bradfield, the lightweight boxing champ who projects a squeaky-clean image for the public, yet behind closed doors, is up to major shenanigans. One night, during a party in Bradfield’s Manhattan apartment, a man is accidentally killed. Although Bradfield had nothing to do with it (since he was out cold drunk), he gets the blame. The cops think Bradfield died in a car accident trying to evade the law, but he secretly sneaks his way out West, where he meets up with some reform school rejects and a beautiful woman named Peggy (Gloria Dickson). 

The plot is filled with holes, the script is littered with hokum and nearly every aspect of the story is telegraphed way in advance. (And if you’re a boxing fan, you’re in for some disappointment. There are boxing scenes, yes, but nothing at all memorable.) About 10 minutes of The Dead End Kids was enough to last a lifetime, but otherwise the performances are certainly better than the material.