Pages

Friday, January 3, 2020

Entertainment Round up for 2019

Below is my annual list of the films, books, television and streamed shows, plays, live performance, etc., I took in the previous. My usual caveat applies: while I strive to be exhaustive, I am sure there are some items that slipped through the cracks.

I've also somewhat streamlined and re-organized the way these lists are presented. In the past, I listed all films together regardless of whether I saw them in a theater, DVD or streaming. For this year, I decided to group films and DVDs together; and placed films I saw on streaming services with other streamed content under the single banner of "Streaming." This is partly in recognition of the fact that some "films" are now streamed exclusively and that there is sometimes a gray area between streamed content, films and "television." (Indeed, I listed no television series at all that I watch regularly since I now have NetFlix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus—so far, I still have DirecTV.)

The number of films seen in a theater this year jumped from about 7 in 2017, 8 in 2017, to 18 in 2019! I'm not sure whether that's a reflection of there being more films I wanted to see versus my having more free time to do so now that the kids are older.

That said, my favorite films this past year rank among the best I've seen in many years. My absolute favorite was Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, followed closely by Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood. Honorable mentions as well to Ford v. FerrariKnives Out, Little Women, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; as well as Downton Abbey, Tolkien, and Aladdin. Films I enjoyed well enough but I thought were overrated (at least critically or by general audiences) include Shazam!, Frozen 2The Favorite, and Captain Marvel!

In terms of streamed content, seasons 3 of The Crown and the BBC's Victoria, and season 2 of GLOW were topnotch, as was the Disney Plus series, the Art of Imagineering. My Name is Dolemite, the third season of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Home for Christmas (from Norway), and season 3 of Kim's Convenience get honorable mention. Disney Plus's Mandalorian (and baby Yoda) seemed to be on everyone's radar—while I said through most of it that I wasn't totally sold on the series, finding the episodic nature of it a bit pointless, I have to give it credit for ending strong. I also watched the second season of Jack Ryan—while I thought it was better than the first season, I give it credit for being very upscale and movie-quality, while also being also a bit bat-sh*t crazy at the end!

Also read some great books, check them out below.... So without any further ado...

Films/DVDs
Little Women (12/29/2019)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12/28/2019) - rewatch
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12/22/2019)
Knives Out (11/30/2019)
Frozen 2 (11/28/2019)
Ford v. Ferrari (11/23/2019)
Jojo Rabbit (11/11/2019)
Downton Abbey (9/21/2019)
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (9/1/2019)
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (7/28/2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (7/4/2019)
Yesterday (6/29/2019)
Aladdin (6/22/2019)
Tolkien (5/18/2019)
Avengers: Endgame (5/11/2019) - rewatch
Avengers: Endgame (4/27/2019)
The Favorite (1/5/2019)
The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies - DVD (1/6/2019) - rewatch
Captain Marvel (3/10/2019)
Topsy Turvy - DVD (4/2019) - rewatch
Shazam! (4/13/2019)

Streaming
Waking Sleeping Beauty - Disney+ (12/31/2019)
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi - Disney+(12/30/2019) - rewatch
Art of Imagineering, eps 1–6 - Disney+(12/30/2019)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (12/29/2019) - rewatch
Great News, Seasons 1–2 (12/28/2019)
Star Wars: A New Hope (12/25/2019) - rewatch
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - Season 3- Amazon (12/10/2019)
Home for Christmas, 6 episodes - Netflix (12/9/2019)
Tucker: the Man and His Dream - Amazon (12/8/2019) - rewatch
Kim’s Convenience, Season 3 - Netflix(12/6/2019)
Too Big to Fail - Amazon (11/30/2019)
Chris Claremont's X-Men - Amazon (11/29/2019)
The Mandalorian - Disney+ (11/25/2019)
Star Wars, Empire of Dreams - Amazon (11/24/2019)
The Crown, Season 3 - Netflix(11/23/2019)
The Real Rob, Season 2 - Netflix (11/16/2019)
Living with Yourself, Season 1 (5 eps) - Netflix (11/11/2019)
GLOW, Season 3 – Netflix (11/11/2019)
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Season 2 - Amazon (11/2019)
Dolemite is My Name – Netflix (11/3/2019)
Modern Love, Season 1 (5 eps) - Amazon (10/2019)
Ghost World - Amazon Prime (10/2019) - rewatch
Victoria, Season 3 - Amazon Prime (09/2019)
Inglourious Basterds - Netflix (9/7/19) - rewatch
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz - Netflix (9/2/2019)
Pirate Radio - Amazon (9/2/2019) - rewatch
Stalag 17 - Amazon (9/1/2019) - rewatch
This Beautiful Fantastic - Amazon (9/1//2019)
The Bookshop - Amazon (8/31/2019)
Jim Gaffigan - Amazon (8/2019)
Funeral in Berlin - Amazon (8/2019)
Richard Jeni: A Big Steaming Pile Of Me - Amazon (8/2019) - rewatch
Force 10 from Navarone - Amazon (8/2019) - rewatch
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee - 2019 Season - Netflix (8/2019)
Nowhere Boy - Netflix (8/15/2019) - rewatch
Four Weddings and a Funeral - Netflix (8/3/2019) - rewatch
Spotlight - Amazon (7/2019) - rewatch
Marshall - Amazon Prime (7/2019)
Damned United - Amazon (7/2019) - rewatch
The Iron Lady - Netflix (7/25/2019)
Good Night, and Good Luck - Netflix (7/25/2019) - rewatch
In a World - Amazon Prime (6/2019)
San Pietro - Netflix (6/29/2019)
Always Be My Maybe - Netflix (6/16/2019)
Bathtubs Over Broadway - Netflix (5/23/2019)
John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky - Netflix (5/11/2019)
The Highwaymen - Netflix (4/12/2019)
Unicorn Store - Netflx (4/11/2019)
Kim's Convenience: Season 3: eps 1-2 - Netflix (4/7/2019)
Arrested Development: Season 5 - eps 1-5 - Netflix (4/6/3019)
Bottle Shock - Amazon (4/5/2019) - rewatch
Arrested Development: Season 4 Remix - Netflix (3/22/3019)
Richard Jeni: Platypus Man (03/2019) - rewatch
Music and Lyrics - Netflix (3/3/2019) - rewatch
Saving Mr. Banks - Netflix (3/2/2019) - rewatch
Beauty and the Beast - Netflix (3/2/2019) - rewatch
Movie Movie - Amazon (3/2019) - rewatch
Henry V - Amazon - (2/2019) - rewatch
Billy Elliot - Netflix (2/15/2019)
Lincoln - Netflix (2/15/2019) - rewatch
Schitt’s Creek, Season 1, Eps. 1–3 - Netflix (2/9/2019)
The Founder - Netflix (2/8/2019) - rewatch
Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner - Netflix (2/6/2019)
Agatha and the Truth of Murder - Netflix (2/1/2019)
Poldark (eps. 1-8) - Amazon (1/28/2019)
Monty Python's Almost the Truth: The Lawyer's Cut, Eps. 1–6 - Netflix (1/20/2019)
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened - Netflix (1/19/2019)
Eric Idle’s What About Dick? - Netflix (1/16/2019)
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug - Amazon (1/5//2019) - rewatch
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Amazon (1/2//2019) - rewatch

Books
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff (12/29/2019)
Star Wars Memories: My Time In The (Death Star) Trenches by Craig Miller (12/24/2019)
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle (1/15/2019)
Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth by Ian Nathan (1/5/2019)

Exhibitions/Sports/Theater/Live Performance
Hollywood Babble On (12/31/2019)
OK Go - The Soraya (11/2/2019)
CCHS Football game and drumline battle (11/1/2019)
Band Competition (10/26/2019)
CCHS Football game and halftime show - Lawndale W 29-27 (10/11/2019)
CCHS Football game and halftime show - Palos Verdes W 55-52 (9/20/2019)
35th Anniversary Screening of Electric Dreams - Frida Cinema (9/7/2019)
The Ralph Report at the Improv (3/9/2019)
1776 – The Soraya (2/9/2019)
Cinderella (Peri and Syd) Music Center (2/6/2019)
Wicked (Peri and Syd) (1/26/2019)
CCHS Jazz Festival - Robert Frost Theater (1/26/2019)


Monday, December 30, 2019

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker


For me, at least, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker brings the nine-movie/three-part trilogy to a strong, thrilling close. While some have called it a “course correction” for the divisive Last Jedi—or worse, an exercise in “fan service”—for me, of the current trilogy, the film was by far the strongest and felt most like a Star Wars film. It contained plenty of sentimental shout outs for longtime fans while offering plenty of unique enjoyments to stand on its own.

I grew up with the Star Wars films, with the first film (since re-named A New Hope) having been released when I was 13 years old. Empire Strikes Back came out the summer before I left home for college and Return of the Jedi while I was in college.

I’ve often felt that, as people who saw the original films grew up, many took the series more seriously and wanted a “realistic” gritty series that reflected their adult sensibilities. While new entries like the Mandalorian, Solo, and Rogue One, took place in the Star Wars universe, the sense of fantasy, myth and childlike wonder disappeared. Indeed, in the examples just mentioned, the Force has played a very limited role, if any at all.

The Rise of Skywalker has a lot on its mind and a lot of characters and loose ends to tie up, while introducing a few new ones, and for the most part it succeeds. And even within its limited timeframe, it provides plenty of moments for most of the characters, old and new.

Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher all return and have touching movements—Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess (or rather General) Leia all have a chance to say farewell. (Fisher, of course, passed away before the filming began but with the family’s blessing was seamlessly integrated into the story’s plot using already shot footage.) Their appearances inspire and push the story along.

At the end of the day, however, the focus and heroine of this trilogy is the mysterious Rey, former stormtrooper Finn and dashing resistance fighter Poe Dameron—as well as new villain Kylo Ren, who are all front and center. For me, Daisy Ridley’s casting as Rey was a particularly good casting coup for the series and the key reason I felt invested in the new trilogy. While John Boyega's Finn has little to do here, Oscar Isaac’s Poe—who I found a little forced and problematic in the other films—finally gets screen time with the others and has some of his back story filled in.

SPOILER ALERT (spoilers follow)
One of the film’s key reveals is Rey as the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, a villain who has loomed large in all three trilogies. (Demonstrating just how much ground this film had to cover, this reveal is made in the opening crawl of the film rather than dramatically during the movie). We discover that Palpatine has been pulling the strings from within the shadows all along and amassed an army and armada large enough to crush the resistance once and for all as well as subsume the First Order that arose in the vacuum of the original Empire’s fall in the original trilogy.

One of the most divisive elements has been the redemption of Kylo Ren—apparently, there is a faction of fans who were adamant that he not only survive but be coupled with Rey. Dramatically speaking, however, Ren’s only path to redemption was self-sacrifice through death—and for the most part, it is handled beautifully in the film as he re-discovers both his identity and soul as Ben Solo. And while Rey has learned she is a Palpatine, her decision at the end of the film to adopt “Skywalker” as her surname—as someone who until recently thought she was a “nobody” and had no name—was a moving moment and brought the film full circle.

I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker because it celebrated and honored the series. While the Force Awakens played it safe by hewing very close to the original film (some called it a virtually remake of the first film), the second seemed to go out of its way to disassemble the core themes and ideas of the series, such as asserting that the trilogy’s heroine, Rey, was a “nobody,” i.e., not a Skywalker or of any lineage burdened with manifest destiny. The Rise of Skywalker, however, seemed to have an equal measure of fan service and new thrills and ideas. It was a near impossible task to satisfy all fans, but I think Disney (and director and co-screenwriter J.J. Abrams) balanced all these elements well, resulting in an emotionally satisfying closure to the Star Wars/Skywalker story arc.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

REVIEW: OK Go in Concert



My family and I had the pleasure to see OK Go in concert on November 2.

The family-friendly show was a concert but also a bit of performance art —though they played live, their performances were often played in sync with the videos for which they are famous, many of which have gone viral.

And showcasing their creativity and playfulness, they invited the audience to download an app to their phones and play along with one of their numbers, with cues given onscreen on what notes to hit.

At various moments in the show, they also paused for some Q&A, displaying lots of humor and wit. And, of course, there was showmanship—in addition to the videos, at some points in the show, they had machines that blasted confetti onto the audience during a few numbers. For the encore, they invited kids to come on stage to dance as they performed a cover of Blur’s “Song 2,” as many in the audience joined them in their seats.

One of the highlights was their talking about how they stumbled across their niche, first playing the video clip below before they came on stage, from a local morning show in Chicago in 1998, when they were just starting out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwoD4pfvuC4, though no need to watch it.)

After the band came out to sing their first number, they told the story behind the clip. Apparently, the show didn't have the capability for bands to play live, so acts were asked to lip sync their performance. So they instead decided to choreograph a boy band dance with a fake rock band air-guitaring in the background.

The lead singer at the time was working as an engineer at the National Public Radio (NPR) station in Chicago and asked co-workers at the radio station to play in the fake band—two of the people in the band in the above clip (who they showed in close up stills on screen) were now-notable NPR radio personalities Ira Glass (This American Life) and Peter Sagal (host of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me).

Shortly after this appearance, when Glass was doing some live shows, he asked the band to open for him—and specifically asked whether they would perform the boy band dance from the above video. They did and it got such a positive response from the audience it ended up becoming part of their act/niche. This led to their other videos—many of the questions during the Q&A asked about their creative process.

It was an enjoyable evening.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Shout Out to the Kevin and Bean Show

A slightly shorter version of this post was posted on my Facebook page.

Gene "Bean" Baxter and Kevin Ryder
I want to give a shout out to the Kevin and Bean Morning Show on the “World Famous KROQ” radio station in L.A. — after 30 years on the air, one of the duo, Gene “Bean” Baxter, has decided to move back to his birth country of England to begin a new phase of his life and career. Today was his last day on the air. While Bean resisted any attempts for a going away party or concert, late night talk host Jimmy Kimmel and podcaster and comedian Adam Carolla—who both pretty much launched their careers as regulars on the Kevin and Bean Show, showed up in studio to wish Bean well and talk about some high (and low) lights of the show. Others who called in to wish Bean well included David Grohl and Ryan Seacrist.

While I was in college here in L.A., KROQ rose to prominence in the 1980s playing punk rock and then New Wave, then became known for being on the cutting edge of alternative rock in the ‘90s. Kevin and Bean began inauspiciously on New Year’s Eve 1989 (to terrible reviews and ratings the first few years) until finding its footing. In fact, I recalled hearing them on the air on their first day. To me, they seemed to be a poor attempt to follow the format of Mark and Brian, the morning DJs on rival L.A. rock station KLOS (who themselves stepped down from their show in 2012 after 25 years, also a remarkable run), but they soon found their own voice.

I haven’t listened to them straight for all 30 years since I’ve alternated in stretches that sometimes lasted years, often listening to other stations including Mark and Brian and National Public Radio, but over the last decade, the Kevin and Bean Show have usually been my main company on my morning commute. It was sometimes just background noise and the supporting players changed over the years, but it certainly was comfort listening that seems worth noting now that the team is breaking up. In 2015, the National Association of Broadcasters inducted Kevin and Bean into its Broadcasting Hall of Fame—and tomorrow night, they will be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in New York.

In addition to Kimmel and Corolla, Kevin and Bean helped put on the media map others like physician Dr. Drew Pinsky, and comedian and impressionist Ralph Garman. Radio is a volatile industry, so this 30-year run — with it partially ending on its own terms — is quite a remarkable feat.

The last show was a lovely and funny send off. (I couldn't listen to the whole show live but heard much of it later in the day since each show is available as a podcast.) In addition to the guests mentioned above, the show included calls from the Poorman — an iconic KROQ DJ from back in the day who was fired from the show 23 years earlier after an incident with Bean (though they buried the hatchet, you could still hear the animosity)—and Ralph Garman.

Garman had been on the show for 18 years before he too was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances. The move upset a lot of listeners, and the morning team and radio station seemed to think it best to cut all ties with Garman afterwards. (In fact, my wife was a big fan of Garman and stopped listening to the show afterwards; he's since established his own successful morning podcast, the Ralph Report, and my wife and I have attended his occasional recorded comedy shows with director and actor Kevin Smith, Hollywood Babble-On).

But on this morning, Garman called in and it was an incredibly sweet moment; Bean gave him a lovely introduction, crediting Garman with creating some of the best moments of the show, including an infamous incident in which he got through to the President of France at the time, Jacques Chirac, by impersonating Jerry Lewis, which Bean said was the single greatest moment of the show. Though Lewis threatened to sue the radio stationed and the show was forbidden from ever replaying the tape or speaking about the incident, with both Chirac and Lewis now passed (and under new station ownership), they spoke about the bit and played a brief clip from it. Bean told Garman he planned to mention Garman at the Hall of Fame event and said the day would not have felt right without hearing from Garman. Great moment.

Photo from Bean's last day at KROQ (Bean is not in the photo since he has been broadcasting the show remotely
from his home for many years)



Saturday, September 14, 2019

Meeting Neal Adams



Absolutely one of the greatest and most respected comic-book artists of all time is Neal Adams. Anyone familiar with comics and its history will know him—if not, a quick introduction…

(I’ve previously written about him on my blog here, regarding 1978’s Superman versus Muhammad Ali comic-book. Though I intended to bring my copy, pictured at right, to the event for him to sign, I forgot it at home! When I first walked in and introduced myself, I mentioned this to him—we both laughed and I told him, “Next time!")

Adams is a pivotal figure in the industry, in that he was one of the artists who pulled comics into the modern era. He came into the industry at the perfect time, when radical change was needed. A shift had already begun in the early 1960s, with the debuts of the Fantastic Four at Marvel Comics and the modern-day version of the Flash at DC. Prior to that, comics had been in a period of doldrums—while remembered fondly by many (some feel it’s time for the pendulum to swing back), with some exceptions, comics generally had become too safe, fantastical and, in some cases, even silly. This was in large part due to the scare the industry had gone through during the early 1950s, following complaints (and Senate hearings) that comics had become too violent and inappropriate for children, and a cause of juvenile delinquency.

With these shifting winds, Adams came in and heralded a more mature, polished, more “photorealistic” style that readers didn’t realize they were yearning for, honed by his experience in advertising and newspaper strips (Ben Casey). While Adams is known for a diverse body of work, his influence is probably best defined by his sophisticated take of the Batman. Up to that time, the character was still in fantasy/children’s comics mode, a stereotype that for better or worse was further cemented in the public mind by the Adam West Batman TV show. Adams (and the writers he worked with) completely redefined Batman for the new age, with more realistic adventures and (for the time) more mature themes. While not quite the completely tortured, dark detective the character’s become in today's comics and films, his Batman was certainly the first step in that more complex direction.

Adams also was an early vocal advocate of artists' rights. He was among the first proponents for a union and was instrumental (along with fellow cartoonist Jerry Robinson) in getting recognition and a pension for the creators of Superman, Jerry Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who were both living in poverty when the Christopher Reeve Superman film hit theaters in 1979. Adams and Robinson shrewdly used the film's release as leverage to shame Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC Comics, into doing the right thing.

So of course you can imagine what a thrill it was to see and meet Adams at an event organized by local L.A. area cartoonists, at Adams’ new comic-book store, the Crusty Bunkers, in a building that also has served as the home office for his Continuity Studios West. Adams’ studio over the years has been involved in comics, advertising and animation; as those activities have wound down in recent years, Adams decided to open a comic book store/boutique in the space.

While I’ve briefly met Adams as a fan at conventions, this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to meet him in a professional manner or setting. For this evening, Adams was the featured guest, graciously hosting the group at his new store. He talked shop with fellow professionals, fielded questions and regaled us with engaging and often hilarious stories and anecdotes from his career, often involving many well known comics industry giants he’s worked with over his storied career. Some of these stories have been told in interviews, and others are not for me to share, but Adams was always engaging and entertaining, and candid about himself and others.

As alluded above, Adams first tried to break into the industry at a moment of transition in the industry when everyone told him that the business “would be dead in a year.” He talked about wanting to break into comics while even in high school, where even his teachers (one of whom was a professional cartoonist) discouraged him.

Because of these "lost years," as he and others have noted, at one point when he started in the business, everyone was either five years older or five years younger than him, making him a bridge of sorts between the old guard of cartoonists and industry professionals and the new guard.

As a result, Adams had plenty of funny and juicy stories (and opinions) about comics pros who loom large in the history of comics, such as Mort Weisenger, Julius Schwartz, Robert Kanigher, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta, and Stan Lee, as well as his contemporaries and some of the cartoonists who have followed, like Archie Goodwin, Murphy Anderson, Wendy Pini, and Dave Sim. He particularly had kind words about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, acknowledging and talking about their role in revitalizing the industry in the early 1960s.

Above all, Adams is a student of the medium who appreciates those who came before him “on whose shoulders the industry was built.” Here he was not just referring to cartoonists but also great illustrators and artists like Alphonse Mucha and Norman Rockwell, noting that there would always be a section in his store where books about the great artists would always be available to be appreciated and remembered.

Though Adams could have kept going with a willing and captive audience, the evening eventually came to a natural conclusion—ever the gracious host, he invited people to take photos with him. This gave me a few moments to speak a little more with him. He was extremely kind and generous with his time, and clearly enjoyed being among fans and fellow professionals.














Tuesday, September 10, 2019

35th Anniversary Screening of Electric Dreams

On Saturday, September 7, I had the good fortune to catch a 35th anniversary screening of an obscure romantic comedy from 1984 called Electric Dreams (1984). It was held at a small arthouse theater in Santa Ana, California, the Frida Cinema, about 35 miles from my home in West L.A., in Orange County. Appearing at the screening were the film’s leads—Virginia Madsen and Lenny von Dohlen—as well as the screenwriter, Rusty Lemorande. When I say obscure, I’m not kidding, as the film has never been released on DVD in the U.S. and was only in theaters for two weeks (more on that below).

The film was followed by a Q&A with Madsen, von Dohlen and Lemorande, and then a signing.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I have a special fondness for Electric Dreams, which was the film debut for Madsen and von Dohlen. Though the film did well internationally, it was in theaters in the U.S. only briefly. The film developed a cult following shortly afterwards, thanks apparently to repeated showings on HBO. Its reputation as a hard-to-find film has been boosted by its lack of availability on DVD in the U.S., though it is available overseas. A low-quality version is available on YouTube and I owned it on VHS for many years before burning it onto a DVD (by then, the VHS print had also faded badly).

Set in San Francisco, the film is a romantic comedy featuring a love triangle between a boy, a girl and his computer—Miles is a young, awkward architect who, at the start of the personal computer revolution, purchases a computer to help him with his research on an earthquake-resistant brick, and Madeline is a cellist with a local symphony orchestra. Shortly after the beginning of the story, Madeline moves into the apartment above Miles and the two soon strike up a relationship. However, after a series of mishaps, the computer becomes sentient and falls in love with Madeline through her music. Jealous of Miles, the computer (who we find out later has named himself Edgar) tries to get Miles out of the picture by taking over his life by ruining his credit, putting him on a most wanted list, and trapping him in the house. (Edgar was voiced by actor Bud Cort, who reportedly did his lines on set in a box so that the actors wouldn’t have to interact with a “real” person—the organizers of the show said they did make an attempt to get Cort to come to make an appearance as well.)

As I have mentioned in my own review—and as the actors discussed on stage during the Q&A—the film was a little ahead of its time in demonstrating the threat to privacy and the vulnerability of personal information in our web-connected world. That said, the film is at its heart a romantic comedy not a cautionary tale—a modern-day re-telling of Cyrano Debergerac, with Miles taking credit for music composed by the computer. So the dangers of having our information online is really only a minor side note to the film and played mostly for laughs, adding just a bit of tension and conflict in the final act of the story.

Before the screening started, two members of the film’s programming staff came out to introduce the film—it turned out both were fans of the movie and, based on this shared love, decided on this anniversary celebration. They then brought out Madsen onto the stage, who expressed being touched by the turnout.

At the start of the Q&A that followed, Lemorande and the actors first spoke about their experiences on the film. For Madsen and von Dohlen, because it was their first film project, they bonded closely and have maintained a close friendship over the years, which was clear in their interactions with each other. (The film was actually shot in England, though the exterior shots were filmed on location in San Francisco, where the film takes place). In addition to citing Cyrano as an inspiration, Lemorande also shared some behind-the-scenes information that was new to even the actors.

First, after asking the audience who first saw the film in the theater—only about a third had (as had I)—he said those of us who did were lucky because it was in theaters for only two weeks. He noted in those days films were given time to find an audience, mentioning it took 9 weeks for the popular comedy Caddyshack to catch on. Apparently, the head of MGM, which held the film’s North American distribution rights, pulled Electric Dreams from theaters to give time for the soundtrack (which featured Jeff Lynne and Boy George/Culture Club, who was huge at the time), to make the charts—the plan was to then re-release the film to theaters on the strength of the soundtrack. A week after the film was pulled, however, the head of MGM was fired, effectively killing the plan and the film’s prospects.

During the Q&A, Lemorande also gave full credit to the two leads for their fine work—indeed, the performances and chemistry of the two leads really are the heart of the film. In response to a question from the audience, Madsen said the two had never met before the first day of shooting and there had been no rehearsals; she did mention, however, that the location shooting in San Francisco did give them a chance to bond before the production moved to England. (Lemorande mentioned that one of the first scenes shots of the movie was the last scene, which he said he would have never done today, but the leads pulled it off wonderfully.)

One of the moderators also noted how progressive and self-possessed a character Madeline is, which was also a bit ahead of its time—rather than Miles being an aggressive suitor, she is the one trying to send Miles signals of her interest, while at the same time also dating a fellow musician.

One other funny tidbit – Bud Cort, who did the voice of the computer, didn't record his lines in post, he did them on set, but from within a box so that the other actors wouldn't be thrown by interacting by a live actor. Both actors thought that was strange but since it was their first film, they didn't question it. (von Dohlen said he saw him once on set by accident.) Ironically, the theater’s lobby has a collage of characters from classic movies -- and Bud Cort is on there from Harold and Maude!)

Lemorande also noted that since Virgin Pictures was producing the film, they insisted that only Virgin artists be on the soundtrack. (This is also why the movie was shot in England—though, of course, the exterior shots were done on location in San Francisco, prior to moving the production overseas.)

Though the film is available overseas in digital format, complicated U.S. distribution rights have delayed the film’s availability on DVD/Bluray in the U.S., though Lemorande said he expected them to be sorted out soon (given how long it’s been, I’ll believe it when I see it!)

In any case, it was a lovely evening where the actors and screenwriter got to feel the love from an appreciative audience. After the Q&A, the three went into the main lobby for a signing. Though I had forgotten to bring my VHS copy of the film for them to autograph, the theater had mini-posters on hand for this very reason.















Thursday, August 29, 2019

REVIEW: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Note: A spoiler warning is included below.

While Quentin Tarantino has always been one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood, he’s also one of its most self-indulgent. I mean this in the sense that he wears his influences and passions on his sleeve, and revels in them in his work. But what distinguishes Tarantino is his ability to draw the audience into his passions and enthrall them.

I’ve never enjoyed excessive violence in films (and have never liked horror movies) and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less inclined to even sit through films that are suspenseful or harrowing. So while I do admire Tarantino, I’ve yet to see the Hateful Eight, Kill Bill, or Death Proof. That said, I have seen his others, including Django Unchained, with Inglorious Basterds my favorite. This is closely followed by Jackie Brown, his most “traditional” film, which for me showed that Tarantino was indeed a bonafide filmmaker.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is perhaps his most personal, geeky and self-indulgent to date because it conveys the sights and feels of Tarantino’s childhood memories of growing up in L.A. Indeed, he has admitted the film is his love letter to L.A. Yet it succeeds because he captures the period in its sights and sounds so vividly, sweeping up the audience in its wake and bringing us along for an enjoyable ride.

The first half of the film or so in many ways is nearly all self-indulgence, with some foreshadowing of what’s to come. Here, Tarantino lovingly and with great attention to detail re-creates L.A. in its still-innocent 1960s’ swinging glory, down to the storefronts and the DJs heard on the radio and parties at the Playboy mansion. The film also revels in Hollywood film- and television-making, with time in the film spent at shoots on studio lots.

This re-dressing of L.A. for the film thrilled many local residents—while I did not move to L.A. until the 1980s to attend college at UCLA, I can attest that some of what can be seen in the film was still there when I arrived. In fact, the historic Village Theatre in Westwood, just outside the UCLA campus, is prominently featured in one of the film’s posters (pictured at right). In recent years, I have again become a regular patron of the theater with my family, partly because it is a large classic movie house. I assumed and hoped that Once Upon a Time… would open there and was disappointed to discover that the film opened instead directly across the street at the equally historic Bruin Theatre. However, it turned out to be the appropriate place to see it after all because when actress Margot Robbie, who plays real-life actress Sharon Tate in the film, goes to watch herself at a showing of the Dean Martin film, the Wrecking Crew, the theater she walks up to and enters, after talking to the people at the ticket booth, is the Bruin! The Village and Bruin Theatres are revealed in the film rather dramatically with a sweeping drone shot, and the audience in the theater laughed and then applauded in recognition when they realized they were sitting in the same theater as the one onscreen (she also walks through the lobby and watches the film inside the theater). Indeed, the marquee of the Bruin Theatre for Once Upon a Time… was identical in style and font to that for the Wrecking Crew in the film (compare the photos below). By the way, when I went to see the film, the theater also included posters outside of the faux movies featured in the film!




In the film's episodic first half, we are introduced to the main characters and follow them as they spend their days tooling around L.A. There’s Rick Dalton (played by a strong Leo DiCaprio), the star of a cancelled television series called “Bounty Law,” who has seemingly reached the expiration date of his TV career, lowering himself to taking on guest-starring roles on other TV shows and is considering doing a spaghetti western overseas; his stunt double/personal assistant, Cliff Booth (a great Brad Pitt, in full-on character actor mode), whose own life and career appears to be hanging on a thread; and, as mentioned earlier, upcoming Hollywood actress and ingenue Sharon Tate (portrayed by a luminous Robbie).

While Dalton and Pitt are fictional (though loosely based on the relationship between actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman-cum-director Hal Needham), Tate, of course, was the real-life wife of film director Roman Polanski and one of those murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. In the film, Dalton is Polanski’s neighbor.

Given this context, the film’s narrative kicks into gear when Cliff comes into contact with the Manson cult, beginning with a meet-cute encounter with a young free spirit named Pussycat, who turns out to be a member of the clan, played by Margaret Qualley. (Qualley is outstanding in the role and has had a banner year, having played Ann Reinking in the terrific mini-series Fosse/Verdun, a character who is the polar-opposite of Pussycat. Pussycat is a true free spirit while the portrayal of Reinking made her appear as the only real grownup in Fosse’s life.)

Through his encounter with Pussycat, Cliff visits the Spahn Movie Ranch, located in a remote area of L.A. and known by Hollywood for location shooting by movie and TV studios, and which was the Manson family’s headquarters. Being familiar with the location and the owner, Cliff finds the presence of the hippies at the ranch suspicious and takes it upon himself to investigate, in one of the film’s most suspenseful sequences. (Manson also makes an appearance later in the film, albeit very briefly, when a friend of Tate’s encounters him scoping out the Polanski/Tate residence.)

Warning: Spoiler Ahead!

The film, however, takes a great departure from history and real life in the climax—while it will surprise anyone who knows what actually happened on the night Tate and her companions were murdered in 1969 by members of the Manson cult, suffice to say, it might be less so for anyone familiar with Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds which took a similar revisionist approach to actual events by giving Hitler and his henchmen their just desserts in a final scene that is best described as fantasy wish-fulfillment.

Tarantino takes the same route here in upending history, with Rick and Cliff turning the tables on the Manson family killers in what turns out to be the film’s one truly prolonged violent, brutal sequence—on the one hand, given what actually transpired, seeing the killers get their due makes the scene cathartic, though at the same time the brutality of their comeuppance—sometimes bordering on gleeful and comic as many of Tarantino's scenes do—does make one feel a tinge of sympathy for those on the receiving end. Nevertheless, while the ending has had its share of detractors, I side with one reviewer who felt that history will ever forget what truly happened, so rather than exploit and wallow in the murders, Tarantino chooses instead to honor their memory by "saving" them in his film. By doing so, he also preserves their innocence—and, by extension, the era’s. (Tate’s sister initially expressed concern about the movie but they were put to rest after Tarantino shared the script with her.)

At the end of the film, it’s not clear what the future holds for Rick and Cliff, though of course they have found a measure of grace and redemption in their actions by preventing the murders and protecting Tate and her friends. As the police leave and Rick comes off the adrenalin rush of fighting off crazed would-be killers, he is invited up to hang out with Tate and her friends, while Cliff is taken by ambulance to the hospital in high spirits, with non-life-threatening injuries. The last scene between the two shows that their friendship has been further cemented by their shared baptism of fire. Who knows—perhaps like the Reynolds-Needham relationship that inspired Rick and Cliff, they eventually follow the similar trajectory of Hollywood success.