Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Damien Chazelle's pre-"La La Land" movie is the excellent, intense "Whiplash"

Damien Chazelle has been the toast of Hollywood over the past few months. The 32-year-old Rhode Island native wrote and directed a little film called "La La Land," which has received a slew of awards and has reportedly grossed nearly $370 million to date. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who previously teamed up in 2011's "Crazy Stupid Love," deliver a musical love letter to Hollywood in this film that everyone has either seen or can't wait to see.

Chapelle's previous film, 2014's "Whiplash," his second as a writer-director, was built around music as well, but the tone was markedly different. In that one, the supremely talented J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller star, respectively, as a jazz band teacher (Terence Fletcher) and drum student (Andrew Neiman) at Shaffer Academy, a Juilliard-like arts school in New York City. Fletcher is brash, demanding, profane, and abusive. Neiman is talented, earnest and determined not to let Fletcher destroy his ambition to be a jazz drummer.

Throughout the movie, teacher and student interact on a number of levels. We think we discover what made Fletcher so angry. Meanwhile, Neiman falls in love with a pretty girl but eventually believes that he needs to choose between love and music, dedicated to his art to the point that the two can't possibly co-exist, at least for him.

At the center of the story, though, is the game played by Fletcher and Neiman as the teacher continues to abuse the student and the student continues to exceed the expectations that have been placed on him. The last fifteen or so minutes of the movie provide a satisfying resolution to the story.

Chazelle's screenplay and direction would have you believe that he's been doing this for 20+ years. The story is well-paced and the conflicts and resolution are expertly handled.

I can't speak highly enough of Simmons' performance. An actor with an offscreen reputation for being one of the genuinely nice guys in the industry reverts in a way to the type of character he played back in the 1990s on HBO's prison drama "Oz." Bald with bulging biceps and dressed all in black, he embodies the villain archetype to its fullest potential. Teller a relative newcomer, brings innocence, intelligence and tenacity to his character. You root for him, want him to do well.

Paul Reiser's relatively minor role as Teller's working-class father, is a middle-aged everyman. And the musical score is powerful and perfectly complements the film.

After you've watched "La La Land," give "Whiplash" a view.

Watch the trailer.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A village movie theater shares the lead in 1988's wonderful Oscar winner, "Cinema Paradiso"

If you're a film lover, you can't help but be enthralled by "Cinema Paradiso," the film that was honored with an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988.

Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and featuring a lovely score by Ennio Morricone, who provided the music for all those great Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, the film tells the story of a boy named Salvatore growing in a tiny village in postwar Italy, the son of a war widow.

There's not much to do in Giancaldo, Sicily, but there is a movie house, so Salvatore begins spending lots of time there, developing a love for movies and befriending Alfredo the projectionist, who becomes his father figure. Alfredo eventually teaches Salvatore how to run the projector, a skill that will one day come in handy.

Over the course of the film, we follow Salvatore's journey from childhood to manhood and witness as he falls in love, acquires a small movie camera, joins the military, and experiences a series of life-changing events.

As Pixar's John Lasseter often says, it's all about the story, and "Cinema Paradiso" offers one that keeps the audience engaged. It's a charming film that presents the hero's journey in a quiet yet powerful manner.

Watch the trailer.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

This Was Cinerama: Placing the audience into the movie

In 1952, people lined up around blocks in major cities to witness some new, fresh and dramatic that had arrived at their local movie theaters.


After decades of viewing movies on traditional-sized theater screens, the wide screen format had arrived thanks to Fred Waller, a Brooklyn-born inventor and special effects artist working at Paramount Studios. Waller had devised a revolutionary wide-screen process that combined footage shot simultaneously using three cameras at separate angles. Projected together, they created a single, very wide image.

From Wikipedia:

The photographic system used three interlocked 35 mm cameras equipped with 27 mm lenses, approximately the focal length of the human eye. Each camera photographed one third of the picture shooting in a crisscross pattern, the right camera shooting the left part of the image, the left camera shooting the right part of the image and the center camera shooting straight ahead. The three cameras were mounted as one unit, set at 48 degrees to each other. A single rotating shutter in front of the three lenses assured simultaneous exposure on each of the films. The three angled cameras photographed an image that was not only three times as wide as a standard film but covered 146 degrees of arc, close to the human field of vision, including peripheral vision. The image was photographed six sprocket holes high, rather than the usual four used in other 35 mm processes. The picture was photographed and projected at 26 frames per second rather than the usual 24.

Although Waller was an innovator, his invention sat on the proverbial shelf for several years. Waller and his friend, Hazard "Buzz " Reeves, one of the country's top sound engineers with whom he had first worked at the Eastman Kodak exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, shared it with journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

Thomas, with prominent film producer Mike Todd and, later, producer Merian C. Cooper, produced the first film to use this new process, a travelogue entitled "This is Cinerama," which opened at the Broadway Theater in New York on September 30, 1952. It was a huge event attended by numerous VIPs. It was even featured on the from page of the New York Times.

As audience members sat in the darkened theater, a black-and-white film began that featured traditional movie footage, followed by Lowell Thomas introducing the film. With his words, "This is Cinerama!" the curtains opened as Thomas image was replaced with dramatic wide screen point-of-view footage of a roller coaster, the Atom Smasher from Rockaway's Playland, ascending the tracks, launching a stunning, immersive audience experience.

View it here.

While the Cinerama experience was indeed remarkable, it was also very expensive to produce. Also, the image wasn't quite seamless, as there were visible lines where the three images joined. Still, it was a novel approach to entertainment that audiences enjoyed for a few years.

Only a few Cinerama films were made before the process gave way to other, newer (though less dramatic) widescreen formats like Cinemascope. Years later, the IMAX and Omnimax dome formats would take audience immersion to new levels.

If you'd like to know more about Cinerama, check out Dave Strohmaier's excellent documentary "Cinerama Adventure."

Friday, February 24, 2017

"Man of the Century: A movie so good it was (unfortunately) ignored

The 1999 indie film "Man of the Century" had everything going for it: an engaging concept and story, excellent acting and great cinematography.Unfortunately, what it didn't have was an audience. Sure, it played at a film festival or two, but the people who have watched and enjoyed it seem to have found it accidentally on cable several years ago. That's how I discovered it.

Gibson Frazier, who wrote the film, stars as Johnny Twennies, a fast-talking, chain-smoking newspaper reporter from the 1920s--who happens to live in modern day (well, circa 1999) New York City. His co-stars include fellow stage actors Susan Egan and Anthony Rapp. It's a cultural clash as Johnny, with his early-twentieth-century approach to situations, interacts with his friends and girlfriends, who are decidedly contemporary in contrast.

Check out the trailer. The film itself is available on websites like Amazon.

Al Pacino's artfully shot coffee commercials

The pride of New York, Alfredo Pacino, isn't only one of the greatest actors of his generation on film. He makes great coffee commercials.

A few years ago he acted in a series of commercials for Vittorio coffee, and each is an artfully shot (in glorious black and white!) short film in which Pacino describes his love for coffee. 

You can see them by clicking the photo above, or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZILy1qRZTU

If, like me, you love the black-and-white montage of New York street cityscapes set to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" that opens Woody Allen's "Manhattan." you will dig these 30-second commercials. Everything--the shot framing, the contrast, the voiceover--is created in a way that would easily get these commercials on the schedule at the Tribeca Film Festival.

BBC "The Woman in Black" now on YouTube

Forget the effects-heavy 2013 film with Daniel Radcliffe. This is the one you want to watch.

Based on the excellent novel by British author Susan Hill, (and, by the way, the second-longest running play in the West End's history)  the 1989 BBC version of "The Woman in Black" has a late-night chiller theater feel to it. A young attorney is dispatched to a remote rural village to check out an empty house so the estate settlement can take place. While there, he keeps seeing a mysterious, ghostly woman.

Watch the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFWgz4nRe0Q

The Scarecrow Rides Again!

If you were around in 1964, you might remember this film. Shown on the Sunday night "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" as a three-part story, "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" starred Patrick McGoohan as an English vicar by day, Robin Hood-type character by night. As Dr. Christopher Syn (the vicar), he ministered to his church community. As the Scarecrow, he and his entourage robbed from smugglers and gave the gold to the poor. 

Here's the full story on Disney's D23 website: https://d23.com/the-scarecrow-of-romney-marsh/

Many baby boomers who watched the movie on TV as children searched everywhere for a video copy of it as adults. It took me a long time, but several years ago I found a VHS copy on eBay. It had been released, then went out of print.

A few years ago, Disney Treasures released a limited-edition DVD of the film, which, of course, sold out immediately. I bought a copy as soon as it hit the store shelves. I don't know why Disney has been keeping it scarce; the company could make lots of money just by making the DVD widely available.