Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jar-Jar Binks gets an appropriate home

In news that may or may not have used the cover of Hurricane Sandy to keep it quiet, The Walt Disney Company has acquired Lucasfilm Limited for just over $4 billion.

We're on the verge of a branding mash-up the likes of which has never been seen by media consuming public. Mickey and Goofy, Simba and Aladdin, Fozzie and Kermit, WALL-E and Mr. Incredible, Thor and Iron Man and The Hulk are now allowed (and will likely be required to) cavort with Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Mon Mothma and Count Dooku. The mind reels.

And the topper: A new Star Wars film is in the works. Now that George Lucas has taken his payoff and retired to his private valley, long-time Lucasfilm producer Kathleen Kennedy is starting up a new series, with Star Wars: Episode VII slated to release in 2015.

I can already see the direction Disney is going to take with their new intellectual property: Big, fast and fully integrated. New themes for the theme parks. New kiddie shows for the Disney Channel (Star Wars Babies? has that been done before?). They'll make their $4 billion back in no time.

For old-school fans like me, the ones who saw Star Wars back in 1977 and witnessed the franchise's sad decline, this is either great news-- or the big, final step into oblivion. It's obvious that the rock in the road in terms of the last three Star Wars films has been George Lucas himself-- his feeble kiddie-pandering, his dull political pontificating, and his peculiar and depressing take on morality. His decisions were impediments that prevented the second three films from reaching the heights of the first three.

With Lucas himself out of the way (after having written the treatments to Episodes VII, VIII and IX, which is his right, of course), and if Disney and Kennedy draft writers and directors with vision, the franchise may again achieve excellence.

If they fail to sieze this opportunity, get ready for endless versions of "The Star Wars Holiday Special," from 2015 to the end of time.

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to the folk at Variety.com, providing box office figures to the internet for almost 100 years now.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to the magnificent folks at Variety.com for not noticing I'm using their copyrighted chart every week!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Muchos gracias to Variety.com - your box office numbers go-to!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Chart courtesy, as always, of Variety.com. Go to them for all your showbiz chart needs!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Ultimate Recursive Movie

The Cinerama film festival did not actually close October 4th with How the West Was Won: the festival folks had special unannounced treat for the widescreen cinema fans in attendance that night.

In The Picture (2012) is a brand-new 30-min film shot in actual 3-strip Cinerama, the first since 1962. David Strohmaier, a film editor with an abiding love of old film formats and one of the organizers of the Cinerama film festival, got hold of a Cinerama camera, had it rebuilt, got Fuji to donate some filmstock, and set out to to make a travelogue.

The results were delightful and quite spectacular. In the Picture closely follows the structure of Cinerama Holiday (1955), which was framed around two couples traveling around and seeing wonders in the US and Europe. But since In The Picture was made on the cheap, it used inexpensively accessed locations around Los Angeles-- Griffith Park Observatory, Angel's Flight, Mullholland Drive, etc.

Shooting In The Picture. Note the three film magazines.
This rig weighs over 200 pounds and required three
car batteries to drive all three mags.
The film features two stars from How The West Was Won: Stanley Livingston (Chip Douglas from "My Three Sons") and a cameo by Debbie Reynolds. It even emulated the stilted dialog style of Cinerama Holiday-- though that might have more to do with working with a vintage Cinerama camera. It was usually placed about two feet from the actors for medium shots and, not being blimped, made an unholy racket.

Recursion is when an element repeats into itself, a potentially endless loop.The recursive thing I was referring to was the ending of In The Picture, and it was uncanny-- and a little spooky, as it occurred on several levels, each more directly recursive than the next:

TOP LEVEL RECURSION - At the end of Cinerama Holiday the two couples go to the Warner Theater in New York, buy tickets to Cinerama Holiday, and see themselves on the big wide screen. In The Picture, faithful to the source, ends the same way, with the four actors buying tickets in the Arclight lobby, going to the Dome and seeing themselves. So far this is a familiar movie trick: I seem to remember Buster Keaton doing it. However:

DEEPER RECURSION - In The Picture was shot just a few months ago. It is very, very strange to see the exact same place Daniel and I were sitting in displayed up on the big screen, especially in outlandishly huge 3-strip Cinerama. The same ushers and ticket-takers we saw in the lobby were extras in this sequence, and the four actors sat down in the same section we were seated in. Not a little unsettling.

A still I took of In The Picture as it was being screened at
the Cinerama Dome. By coincidence, when the actors
see themselves on screen, this is the scene they see.

EVEN DEEPER RECURSION - During this screening, In The Picture's four principal actors were in attendance-- seated all around us, in fact. The movie had already invaded our intrinsic reality: with the actors there it was literally sharing our air. (This is my reaction, of course: I understand that if you live in LA this sort of thing happens all the time.)

DEEPEST RECURSION - The 30-minute short was followed by the screening of 15-minute video documentary called "The Last Days of Cinerama," which was about… The making of In The Picture. Daniel and I fully expected this doc be followed by a 7-minute short about the making of "The Last Days of Cinerama"-- but it was getting late, Dan had to work the next day, so we didn't stick around to find out.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Wide, Wide West

It takes a good reason to get someone to drive 325 miles to see a movie. But if the reason is site-specific AND rare, you gotta make the trip. And so I attended the final days of the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama festival in Hollywood at the Pacific Cinerama Dome, one of only three theaters left in the world equipped to show the process.

The festival closed with a screening of How The West Was Won (1962), a star-studded* epic depicting 50s-era "manifest destiny," the American expansion west. It was one of only two narratives shot in Cinerama, a widescreen visual process that utilizes three strips of film set at angles that give a startling 146° angle of view. It was specifically designed to be shown on a deeply curved screen, which rectifies the wide angle of the collective image in an equally startling way. So when you watch a Cinerama movie the perspective seems amazingly natural, and you follow the action by turning your head, like you would in the real world. Conceptually, it's uncanny.

Practically, however, there are some strange limitations to the process. The seams between the triptych panels are never invisible: the optics of the time (Cinerama cameras were built in the early 1950s) couldn't make the edges blend perfectly. In How The West Was Won the filmmakers took great pains to hide the seams: they would position the actors so they were center in each lens, and often buildings or trees would coincide with the frame edges. One sequence near the end takes place in the interior of a house in Arizona: the wallpaper was a combination of little flowers, grey vertical stripes, and more grey vertical stripes. The frame edges were lost in a sea of stripes: Cinerama wallpaper.

An idea of just how wide the image is-- a frame from
HTWWW, probably a CinemaScope reduction print.
The seams are plainly visible, and you can see that each strip
is actually a tall rectangle.
Ultimately, the Cinerama process is so singular and unusual that it holds the narrative hostage. Since the cameras had only one set of lenses, close-ups were impossible. Medium shots were achieved by having the actors stand less than two feet from the camera, and even then the vastness of the settings dominated the frame. The overarching problem is the style of storytelling employed by the directors (yes, there were four directors): These old Hollywood pros came up in the Academy Format days, and it is obvious they were in their comfort zone with a single focus of action in each scene. An actor will talk: the other actors will look on blankly, as if they thought they were out of frame. So there is a lot of standing around and listening with the cast of this film. Even the wide-screen action sequences tend to have a stubbornly singular core of interest (be it a spectacular train wreck or a spectacular buffalo stampede). This center-of-frame emphasis tends to deaden the compositions, as richly designed as the sets were or amazing the location: They became just so much scenery.

(According to some commie social commentary I've read, regarding nature as "scenery" is a hallmark of bourgeois capitalism, the first step to the commodification of natural resources. That idea fits well here.)

Some folks have released HTWWW in "smilebox" format,
with a curvature added digitally.
This is how a medium shot works in Cinerama.
It took a new generation of filmmakers and a change in visual narrative language to get widescreen cinema to work more naturally. Mise en scene narrative, which uses the entirety of the cinematic canvas, sometimes in multiple centers of action over a widescreen frame, was just being defined at the time HTWWW was released. It would take visionary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Jaques Tati and Blake Edwards to really open up the widescreen frame to it's unique storytelling potential.

With all of it's faults, HTWWW and Cinerama is still a marvel to behold. This film just does not work on video, HD or not: it does not even work in 'scope on a movie screen. It specifically designed for one and only one projection process, and I consider myself fortunate to have see it in it's proper grandeur.

*I picked out Harry Dean Stanton in an uncredited bit part as one of Eli Wallach's henchmen. How old IS that guy?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Speaking of Terry-Thomas


The weird thing is, I'm usually a minimalist.

Seriously, my inclination in entertainment is to try to acheive as much as possible with the least amount of money. I'm a sucker for Roger Corman movies, and have always been very fond of a story he tells about the day he was shooting a Greek war epic. He had scheduled 100 extras in togas and only 20 showed up. Rather than try to round up more extras he added a line of dialogue about how one Greek has the fighting power of five men.

And this is why it's odd that I've always been such a fan of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the Stanley Kramer comedy epic. To me the words "epic" and "comedy" just do not belong together. Still, I grew up watching it on TV (okay, given the Ultra-Panavision aspect ratio of the movie, I watched the middle of it) and loved it.

If you're not familiar, M4W is a kind of caper film. 4 carloads of strangers witness a car crash on a desert road. The driver (Jimmy Durante) tells them of a hidden fortune buried in a park "under a big W" just before he dies. At first the assembled group determines to find the money and split it, but soon it becomes an every-man-for-himself race to get the cash first. The cast is a who's who of comic actors including Sid Ceaser, Milton Berle, Johnathan Winters, Terry Thomas, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman and Buddy Hackett. And honest, that's just scratching the surface.

About twenty years ago the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood promised a widescreen presentation of it and I excitedly bought my ticket for it, only to realize that they had failed to secure a widescreen print. In fact, it was a television print from a TV station down the street; not only were the sides cut off for TV, the top and bottom were cut off so it would fit on the theatre screen. I have resented this experience ever since, until Wednesday night.

Because it was then that the Dome finally made good on that promise and presented the film in its original format, 70mm, 7 track AND anamorphically stretched on a screen so curved that reality itself looked weird for a couple of hours afterward. And let me tell you, no matter how many times you've seen this movie on TV, it's an entirely different experience.

M4W is a movie where plans fail spectacularly. A flat tire doesn't just slow you down - it ends with an entire service station in ruins. Sid Ceaser and his wife get locked in a basement and ultimately the only way out is to use dynamite and escape through a Chinese Laundry. The gags all have BIG payoffs. And in most cases they're a little too big for that box in your living room. The very hugeness of Ultra Panavision is half the payoff for these jokes. It's funny when that gas station is dismantled; but it's HILARIOUS when you're sitting in a theatre and it's as big as an actual gas station.

Oddly, Berle and Ceasar are the comedy superstars who come off as almost straight-men in this movie. My theory is that they were sketch comics - they were at their best displaying their versatility in short bursts, and here they're sustaining a character for over 3 hours. They're really good at it too, but they don't shine like Phil Silvers (playing Bilko again, but in a suit) or Terry Thomas. These are guys who worked a single persona for years into a fine glossy gem.

It's probably the greatest acheivement imagineable when you can take something as delicate an fragile as comedy, throw an impossible amount of money at it, and still get laughs. Usually it doesn't work and you just wind up with an expensive question mark of an experience. Here, it's magical.