Friday Flashback #012 …

I have yet to visit the Cinerama Theater in Seattle, WA, but I love walking by it. Located in the Belltown neighborhood, adjacent to downtown, its amazing wraparound mural by Invisible Creature (the photo above shows only the front) is always a joy to behold. It remains a single-screen theater, so it has only 3 or 4 screenings per day and advance ticketing is always recommended. Someday, someday, for me. In the meantime, you can take a 360-degree tour of the auditorium by clicking here.

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La La Land …

I saw La La Land this weekend, and I have to tell you it’s different than any movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched—and enjoyed—classic Hollywood musicals like Footlight Parade and Singing in the Rain, and in a lot of ways LLL reminds me of them … the sudden bursts of song, the fanciful flights into dance, the bright colors and brassy music. And while it’s a throwback, it’s also a film soundly grounded in this era, with a sometimes-biting look at Los Angeles in general, and Hollywood and the movie industry in particular. The music is soaring and romantic and lush, the dancing is wonderful and the two stars—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—have such an easy, likeable chemistry and are so incredibly talented that you can overlook some of their very minor failings (both have nice voices, but not great voices; in that way they’re a little bit like Gene Kelly, whose singing voice certainly fit him … Gosling’s and Stone’s do, too). Gosling has left me a bit cold in the past; like some other actors—Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Chris Pratt, to name three—whose appeal I just don’t get other than them being good-looking mannequins. But here he’s so sincere, so warm, so TALENTED, that he won me over. And Emma Stone has always been a particular favorite of mine (redheads … am I right?), in just about everything (even those awful Spider-Man movies, where she should have played Mary Jane Watson). The song (“The Fools Who Dream”) she sings when she auditions for a big movie role near the end of the film is so touching and heartfelt, that I cried. Yeah. I cried. In the fancy-pants, leather reclining seat, we’ll serve you overpriced food at your seat if you push the button movie theater.

But OMFG, as the kids say these days, is this a beautiful film. While Kelly’s dance films of the 1950s had stunning color and amazing compositions, the color palette and composition of each and every scene of LLL is breathtaking. There’s nothing else like it out there, and it’s the first film in a long, long time that made me come home and purchase (as in download) the soundtrack. There’s a shot in the film, when Sebastian and Mia (Gosling and Stone, obviously) get together for the first time and they’re on the WB studio lot and they roam past a scene being filmed. The purple lighting fixtures perfectly compliment the deep green trees behind them. And the scene where Mia and her roommates go out to a party, all dressed in bright, primary colored dresses, glowing against a twilight sky is incredible. A number of scenes—including the bravura opening sequence set on a freeway ramp—are long, unedited takes that just flow on and on, just like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire used to do.

The music is just about perfect, a combination of old big band style ballads, movie musical music, jazz, and yet all of it has a modern, present-day sensibility. Everything everyone is saying about this movie is true. It really is different, exciting, compelling, and at times bittersweet. And god, I love bittersweet. Bittersweet is my life.

One last thing: there are moments in this film that not only reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals, but also of the silent movies. There are shots, sequences, slow push-ins to actors’ faces, lighting, framing, and a lack of spoken word that made me feel the real, true visual power of film, taken from a time when the actors “had faces then,” as Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has crafted a totally originally film that owe more than a passing nod to dozens of classic films. So when someone says they don’t make ’em like that anymore, tell them they do. La La Land proves it.


 

Movie Review: Spectre …

SpectreI wish I could tell you I loved every moment of Spectre, the new James Bond movie, but sadly, that’s not the case. Perhaps it was my viewing of every other Daniel Craig 007 outing the weekend before I saw the new film that ruined it for me. Skyfall is such an amazing film, a movie where everything clicks, a movie where there isn’t a dull moment or a wasted frame, that it’s almost impossible to live up to it’s legacy. But there’s a lot wrong with Spectre, the film that is definitely Sam Mendes’s last Bond movie as a director and possibly star Daniel Craig’s last one, too. It certainly feels that way.

(POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!)

So what’s wrong with Spectre? Lots, although there are some good things, too. It has one of the best opening sequences (Bond stalking a terrorist through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade ending with a long helicopter stunt that is incredible) of any 007 movie. It’s great to see M, Moneypenny, Q, and Tanner out in the field. It’s beautifully shot. That new Aston Martin is something.

But it’s also plodding and badly edited (in a great interview on Deadine.com, Sam Mendes lauds the editor Lee Smith, but there are so many shots that just linger way too long). Monica Bellucci is absolutely wasted (so much was made of this 50-year-old “Bond girl” … she’s in one short scene). Lea Seydoux is badly miscast as the center of Bond’s attention, and is way too young to be a love interest. And Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (we all know who he really is) is too quirky and wimpy to ever approach being remotely menacing. (I think the only movies Waltz should appear in our Quentin Tarantino movies … he at least knows how to write for him). Dave Bautista’s Hinx is wasted, the chance for another Oddjob-like great henchman pissed away. And the requisite car chase, where, yes, Bond trashes that beautiful car, is boring.

I’m a firm believer that any time spent watching a James Bond movie, is time well spent (unless that movie includes Grace Jones, Halle Berry, Denise Richards, and/or Madonna). Like the Marx Brothers, bad James Bond is usally better than no James Bond at all. And I’m afraid we’re entering a period—once again—where there will be no James Bond movie for quite a while. Their distribution contract with Sony is up, so there’s that whole “courting” thing again with other studios. Mendes is gone as director. Craig may be gone as star (he has one film left on his contract, but this sure feels like a walk—or drive—into the sunset for him). I’m fearful that the combination of those two things—studio and actor problems—will make for a 4 or 5 year wait between now and the next time we hear those thrilling first bars of the world’s most recognizable movie theme.

One thing that Spectre gets right: The film restores the iconic gun scope opening graphic to the beginning, right after the studio logos, where it belongs. That and the opening beats of the James Bond theme will always set my tiny little heart aflutter.


Bond … James Bond …

(Above: One simply does not go see the new James Bond movie, Spectre, without doing some thorough reconnaissance first …)

I have been a James Bond 007 fan since the ripe old age of 9, when—in the summer of 1964—I saw Goldfinger at a Saturday matinee. I was at that age when the name Pussy Galore was totally lost on me, but that car and those gadgets were not. In retrospect, a Bond movie was more of an adult thing back then—super spies, scantily clad women, double entendres, Aston Martins, and shaken (not stirred) vodka martinis—but there was no ratings code and that Saturday afternoon matinee at the Victoria Theater in downtown Tamaqua, PA, was reserved for us kids.

It was then and there that I fell in love with James Bond. Supposedly the first Bond film you see will be your favorite, and I hit a home run. I was lucky enough to see the one film everyone seems to agree is the quintessential 007 movie. I was never a fan of the Roger Moore movies; Timothy Dalton, I could take or leave (and those two films are so over-the-top, they’re almost obscene); and while Pierce Brosnan started off in an excellent film (Goldeneye), it was all downhill from there, until it bottomed out with Halle Berry, Madonna, and an invisible car (hard to tell which was more exciting) in Die Another Day.

I was an early naysayer on Daniel Craig as 007, but Casino Royale won me over … but not until the very last few minutes of the film. While I appreciated the reboot and thought Craig himself was great, it didn’t gel for me until the classic theme song came on and he finally said the words, “Bond … James Bond.”

Over this past weekend, I watched all three Craig films: Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. It’s best to watch them like this, in one day, if possible, since the first two occur back-to-back: The fairly awful Quantum picks up immediately after the end of the fairly wonderful Casino. So let’s look at them one-by-one, shall we?, he asked with that stiff-upper-lift Brit politeness.


Casino Royale (2006)

It’s an excellent intro to Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond, and one that seems to support my pet theory of the movie Bonds, that the name James Bond is attached to the 007 designation. Craig is a new 00 appointee and more of a “blunt instrument” in this film, according to both Ian Fleming (in his original Casino Royale novel, the first James Bond book, published in 1953) and Judi Dench’s M (this theory gets blown out the window in Skyfall, by the way, when Bond’s childhood is finally discussed in greater detail). Casino also has the most appealing “Bond girl” since Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, plus a decent bad guy in Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre.


Quantum of Solace (2008)

Craig’s second Bond outing is just one big hot mess. Totally miscast when it comes to the female lead and villain (Olga Kurylenko and Mathieu Amalric) and directed by Marc Forster (also miscast), the movie has its moments (most near the very beginning) and then descends into chaos. Amalric’s Dominic Green is the wimpiest Bond villain since Robert Carlyle’s Renard in the Pierce Brosnan-starring The World Is Not Enough (another horribly cast Bond movie).


Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall was another Bond casualty, held up for a number of years during MGM’s bankruptcy. The resultant film, directed by Sam Mendes (another director you’d think would be all wrong for a Bond movie, but isn’t), is probably the best one to-date (jury is out on Spectre). Mendes’ refreshing back-to-basics plot blows up MI-6 and starts over on a number of different levels, including an older and wiser Bond, a new Moneypenny and Q (both wonderfully played by Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, respectively), and an incredible villain in Javier Bardem’s Silva. While Goldfinger will always be my favorite Bond movie, Skyfall is definitely the best.


Friday morning will find me in a movie theater to see Spectre. I don’t know how many more Daniel Craig 007 outings we have ahead of us (evidently neither does he, even though he’s signed for one more), or who the next James Bond will be. I do know whomever it is and whatever they call the next one I’ll be there to see it.

Hey, maybe Reboot is a suitable-sounding Fleming-like title?


Movie Review: All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records …

I jumped at the chance to see the new documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, while I was in New York City last week. At that point, it was one of only two movie theaters in the country showing the film (it is now starting to open “wide,” as they say in the “industry,” quotes added solely for snarkiness). It’s a wonderful film, perfectly capturing the go-go years of this incredible chain of record/video/book stores that are sadly missed in all of the major markets that they once dominated.

I first discovered Tower Records (originally Tower Record Mart in its Sacramento, CA formative years) in New York City, at both 4th Avenue and Broadway and the Lincoln Center store, the latter of which Woody Allen immortalized in Hannah and Her Sisters. They talk about the 4th Ave. store in the documentary. It started as a desire to do a classical music store, and they figured New York was the perfect place for it. But when they looked at the store it was in an incredibly rundown neighborhood, so bad that there was  a dead dog lying in the gutter in front of the storefront. Within three years, Tower Records had an amazing effect on that area, taking it from slum to viable neighborhood.

AllThingsMustPass_PosterThat’s just one of the many stories in this incredible documentary (currently clocking at 100% on the TomatoMeter with critics at RottenTomatoes.com), which is directed by Colin Hanks (yes, THAT Colin Hanks, actor and son of Tom, who grew up in Sacramento). The film wisely uses many of the chain’s former employees for interviews, including the boss himself, Russ Solomon, who comes across—even at the age of 90—as the coolest boss in the world. All of them are wonderful, particularly Heidi Cotler and Mark Viducich, who both rose from clerks to management, as did most of the people interviewed. There are also interviews with music personalities such as Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Dave Grohl (who worked in the Washington DC Tower), and Elton John, who shopped religiously every Tuesday he was in LA at the Sunset Strip Tower Records, buying 3 or 4 copies of each album (one for each of his houses). Like a lot of us, Elton was heartbroken to see Tower go away. Springsteen has one of the best quotes in the film: “Everyone in a record store is a little bit your friend for 20 minutes or so.” That shared experience is something you can’t get downloading music from iTunes.

The documentary follows a chronological arc from the very beginnings of Tower, selling used jukebox 45 RPM records (singles) in Solomon’s dad’s drugstore to the bitter end when banks liquidated the stores. And it’s all there, warts and all, with honest appraisals of Tower’s fate and downfall by those ex-employees, including Russ Solomon and his son. A perfect storm of circumstances caused Tower Records demise, including overextending themselves—both financially and with new stores—the CD and MP3 revolutions, and Napster. The documentary is warm, sad, poignant, and yes … I cried.

TowerRecordsLogoMy Tower Records experience includes the above-mentioned NYC flagship stores, plus regular visits to the San Diego-area stores once I moved here in 1998. There was the Sports Arena store—originally two stores (video and records), which combined into one shortly after I started shopping there. There was also one in La Jolla, where there was a separate Classical music and video section. I loved those stores, and spent many a Friday evening at one of them. They had amazing magazine sections, and had the trademark Tower standby of great art (created in-house at the stores) to promote music and videos. I also dearly remember the Tower magazine, Pulse, which sadly was one of the first things to go once the banks got involved. I wish I hung onto some copies of that.

One thing I do have is an old Tower Records plastic bag, the classic red type on a yellow background design, which they discuss in the documentary. A friend of Russ Solomon’s designed the font (referred to as a “letter” by Russ in the film), and said they’d steal the Shell Oil Company’s color scheme. In doing so, they created both an iconic typeface and logo.

NoMusicTower Records still exists in Japan, which was once part of the Tower worldwide empire, but was spun off into a separate business entity. There are 85 stores in Japan, making it almost worthwhile to reconsider my aversion to travel across the Pacific. I’d love to shop in a Tower Records again, even if I can’t understand a word they’re singing.

Click here to see the trailer for All Things Must Pass. For more on the film, check out their amazing Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/TowerRecordsDoc, which includes photos and memorabilia from this past weekend’s Tower Records employee reunion in Sacramento, CA.

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead …

LampoonPosterThe other night I watched the new documentary on the seminal (they would have loved that pun) 1970s humor magazine, National Lampoon. Called National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, and produced and directed by Douglas Tirola, the doc looks at the rise and fall of the publication, plus its roots in Hollywood via its most famous early movies, Animal House and Vacation. The documentary is definitely worth seeing (here’s a link to its trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=2&v=6EXQgTDZs60), if only for the very early, pre-Saturday Night (later Saturday Night Live) appearances of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, all Second City and National Lampoon Radio Hour alumni. (And yes, the poster at left was a real magazine cover, and one of their best-selling issues, widely regarded as one of the great magazine covers of all time).

Beyond the fact that I so thoroughly enjoyed this film that I didn’t want it to end (as, alas, the Lampoon eventually did, too), I’m not going to review it here. You have to see it for yourself, if such a thing interests you. National Lampoon is an almost forgotten part of American pop culture. It’s remembered now for the above-mentioned movies, and an eminently forgettable string of knock-offs that used the Lampoon name in their titles (Van Wilder being the best of them, which is faint praise, indeed). But back when I was a teenager, Lampoon was an important part of my formative years.

The Lampoon was produced by a bunch of horny guys just out of college (the kind of guys who didn’t attract a lot of attention from women … until they became the guys behind a successful magazine and had a lot of money and drugs). Doug Kenney and Henry Beard continued from the Harvard Lampoon, after a string of successful magazine parodies (Mademoiselle, Time, Sports Illustrated) proved to them that they could do a national magazine. They approached a number of publishers (including those they parodied) and were soundly rejected. It was when they hooked up with Matty Simmons that they finally found someone who shared their vision. And when Simmons added the perfect art director (Michael Gross, followed by Peter Kleinman), and a publisher and ad rep who could convince companies that the people (just about all men or boys masquerading as men) who read the mag were the ones who bought liquor, stereos, records, and cigarettes, National Lampoon took off. At one point, the magazine sold a million copies a month. Although it peaked in the ‘70s under Kenny, Beard, and Gross, it lasted until 1998, and spawned a whole new sense of humor for a country still recovering from the tumultuous 1960s, Nixon and Watergate, and trying to survive the Reagan years.

I was 15 in 1970, and National Lampoon was a natural progression for me. It went like this: Comic books to MAD magazine to National Lampoon. I could bring the Lampoon safely into my parents’ house, most months (unlike the copies of Leg Show and Juggs I shoplifted on a regular basis), although sometimes there were questions (the repeated “Sex Issue” covers; “Hitler in Paradise,” a cover feature hilariously explained in the documentary) and some issues had to be taken immediately upstairs to my brother’s and my attic hideaway, where we kept all of our comics. As Kevin Bacon (who made his first big splash in Animal House) explains in the doc, the Lampoon was a place where you could find breasts.

The Lampoon did a ton of comics parodies with the likes of Neal Adams, Russ Heath, and Frank Springer handling the art chores, so the comics connection was a natural. MAD was a subversive influence on teenagers for decades, but at some point, you “graduated” from the comic bookish MAD to something else. National Lampoon was that something else. Where MAD was subversive, Lampoon was vile, disgusting, sexist, racist, and unbelievably wild. There’s no way they would be able to publish a magazine like that today, in our era where everyone voices their outrage on the Internet over the tiniest perceived politically incorrect joke or comment. We have become a nation of uncontrollable whining babies … but I digress.

I learned a lot about sex from the Lampoon, and most of it was disgusting; looking back, I now realize most of it was funny, too. And boy do I miss that. The Lampoon also introduced me to a stable of cartoonists, through its “Funny Pages” section, that included Shary Flennkien, Bobby London, Gahan Wilson, MK Brown, and tons of others. John Hughes got his start in the Lampoon, as did the Vacation movie (in an article called “Vacation ‘58”). Chris Miller, who co-wrote Animal House with Doug Kenney, wrote the most startling sex-fueled stories about growing up, which struck a chord with more than just the teenage me, I’m sure. (Miller’s stories were the basis of Animal House, with one important change: His original stories took place in high school, and producer Ivan Reitman knew that no studio would touch a movie about a bunch of raunchy high school students, so it was changed to college; if one thing has changed since the ‘70s, it’s the studio’s tolerance for raunchy high school students, both in the movies and on television).

Sadly, there is no definitive book collection of the “Best of National Lampoon” … there is a book of the same title (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great) by cartoonist and frequent cover artist Rick Meyerowitz, which is exactly what the title says it is, about the writers and artists, but no gathering of great Lampoon material exists from the classic years. I’m assuming a lot of that is tied up in legal matters from the many transfers of the company (at one time it was co-owned by Tim Matheson, who played Otter in Animal House).

Without the National Lampoon there would be no Saturday Night Live, no movie star careers for Chase, Belushi, and Murray, et al., no Animal House, no Caddyshack (an unofficial Lampoon pic), no Judd Apatow, or Bridesmaids, or Trainwreck, or The Simpsons, or Family Guy … the list is endless. It came along in a particular moment in time that it barely survived: The “free” years during the decade of the 1970s, when sex, drugs, and rock and roll reigned supreme, before Reagan made us all one uptight moral majority again. And for this one quiet and lonely teenager, the Lampoon shined a flashlight under the covers and made me constantly wonder “Do people really do THAT?” I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way. It also made me laugh. A lot.

See the movie. It’s on iTunes and On Demand now. It’s the only way you can get just a small taste of what those magazines were like, more than 40 years ago.