Saturday, October 24, 2015

POE STORIES ARE BROUGHT TO ANIMATED LIFE BY THE SUBLIME "EXTRAORDINARY TALES"


Halloween is merely a week away, so of course TV and the Cineplex are inundated with all kinds of delights for boys and ghouls. One of the best offerings, that has just premiered on VOD this weekend, is an animated version of five Edgar Allan Poe stories called EXTRAORDINARY TALES. Poe’s work is always extraordinary, and so is this collection of small films.

Adapting Poe to the screen is challenging for filmmakers, and their work has always been very hit or miss. Roger Corman did an admirable job putting THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER up on the big screen in the 1960’s, but his version of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is best forgotten. Few have tried to adapt Poe since, most likely due to the difficulty of making his dreamlike narratives and metaphorical characters seem three-dimensional onscreen. But animation doesn’t need to stay tethered to any form of reality, and that gives the medium plenty of license to play with Poe via scale, composition and extravagance.


For example, the first extraordinary tale is “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and the animators render it with designs that could never be achieved in reality. Creating hallways as wide and long as football fields would look well, cartoonish in reality, but here such exaggeration plays sublimely. The illustrations turn the house into one ginormous tomb.


Indeed, the house of the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher is a character in the story, and its arc is the most dramatic. Thus, the animators have a field day rendering each crack, creak and crumble of the décor. The sound design complements it thoroughly and even the whistles of wind surging through the halls in the evening suggest mourning. Yet, despite such caricaturing, it plays fantastically. Who hasn’t read the story and envisioned a mansion as foreboding as this? It’s the perfect marriage of style and substance with Poe. Add into the mix, the droll and devilish narration of the late, great Sir Christopher Lee, and you’ve got the best short right at the start.


Some other celebrities pop up contributing voice narration throughout the remaining four.  “The Tell Tale Heart” uses an old radio recording of Bela Lugosi enacting the piece. It was recorded well over half a century ago, but Lugosi’s cryptic take on the young man’s story of murder and madness fits Poe’s words like a hand in a bloody glove. The animation here is sparse, drawn only in black and white. It may remind you some of Frank Miller’s drawings for Sin City. It gives this episode an appropriately nourish feel too.


The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro performs the vocals for the Spanish prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” If you think his inclusion is a bit of stunt casting, you’re correct. However, he’s actually a very good actor and gives the role a fitting machismo and urgency.

The look of “The Pit and the Pendulum” has a computer game feel to it and one would think animating rats and that horrible blade would have inspired the animators to go big and fantastical, but they don’t. Instead, they keep it real. In fact, the only real visual gimmick they employ is a split screen effect to create urgency as time is running out for the man pinned under the pendulum. It will remind of the TV series “24” and it was probably the intent of the cheeky animators here.


“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” isn’t quite the grabber that those other Poe stories are, but here it’s done well and deft as the shortest entry. Narrated intensely by Julian Sands, the look here vamps the EC comics of the 1950’s, and one of this segment’s charms is that the character of the mesmerist is drawn to look like Vincent Price. Price, as you’ll recall, starred in most of Corman’s big screen Poe adaptations in the sixties.

Corman’s best film was THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and to honor him, they cast the veteran filmmaker to voice the few lines of the story’s main character Prince Prospero. This short’s short on narration, and it’s the only quibble you could really have with it. The visuals are trying to speak a thousand words, but it could use some of Poe’s sinister editorializing on the upper class partying during a plague that is consuming the countryside.


 Still, the visuals here are the most stunning in the film. The characters are all tall, thin and move slowly, as if they don’t have a care in the world. Moving from one scene of debauchery to the next, we see gamblers, fornicators, and drunkards partying like they’ve got all the time in the world. When the Red Death shows up to make sure they’re all touched by the pox as well, he moves at the same gliding speed. It’s a fantastically fiendish visual joke. He’s just like them. And soon, they’ll be like him too.

The framing device that holds the five stories together is that of a talking raven visiting a grave site where he discusses Poe’s work with one of the statues. The statue is the Angel of Death, and she and the raven discuss Poe’s legacy as a writer, as well as the impact of various deaths on his life, like his mother’s when Poe was child, and his wife Virginia. It adds some smart context to Poe beyond what his stories say about the author. And the scenes are beautifully rendered by animated paper cut-outs that play like Poe’s pages come to life.


Triple threat Raul Garcia wrote, directed and co-produced this enchanting Halloween treat. And if his take on Poe doesn’t quite chill the blood as the author’s original prose did, well, that was probably a given going in. What wasn’t is how spectacularly successful this outing would be at bringing the lauded author’s stories to visual life. It stands as one of cinema’s best Poe adaptations. Five of them, actually. And in this season, that’s quite a trick.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"CRIMSON PEAK" IS A SUBLIME HORROR MOVIE, SO WHY IS IT STRUGGLING TO CONNECT?


While a 70% fresh rating for CRIMSON PEAK over at RottenTomatoes.com is nothing to balk at, Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror love story is worthy of better reviews than it has gotten. And its $13.1 million box office it’s first weekend isn’t bad either, considering it opened against the child friendly frightener GOOSEBUMPS and Steven Spielberg’s latest BRIDGE OF SPIES not to mention STEVE JOBS opened wider last weekend too. No matter though, Hollywood insiders and pundits are already exclaiming CRIMSON PEAK flopped. So why did this incredibly produced and expertly acted thriller not pan out with critics or audiences enough?

Old school horror may be lost on today’s audiences

Almost any weekend that a horror film opens, it scores with young audiences and dominates the box office. CRIMSON PEAK did not. Is the fact that it’s a period piece just too foreign to most? Maybe it has less to do with the period of the late nineteenth century and more with how director del Toro presents it. The film has a classical feel to it, very Edgar Allan Poe, very Vincent Price in its way. Are refinement and diction, along with petticoats and cravats, lost on too many teens today? Likely, if they’re used to the contemporary and rougher horror styling of the handheld, “found footage” mockumentary sub-genre. CRIMSON PEAK is almost quaint in its way, which may simply play as way too sincere for 2015 cynicism.


It opened in the wrong month

What? How can October, the month of Halloween, be the wrong month for a horror movie? It can if there are too many other films demanding our attention, and let’s face it, autumn is now the Oscar season as serious-minded film after serious film opens. Granted, the production values in CRIMSON PEAK are award-worthy, but the horror genre has never been Oscar bait, so it gambled opening when it did against so many films in the race. Perhaps if it had opened in the dull dry months of August or early September CRIMSON PEAK could’ve reigned. But when big studio films like THE MARTIAN, BRIDGE OF SPIES and STEVE JOBS are getting all the talk and ink, as well as flocks of the movie-going public, it’s hard for its competitors to get noticed.

The trailers gave away too much

For decades now, trailers have been giving away too many of the best scenes in movies. It’s even worse in the coming attractions for the horror genre as some of the best “boo’s” are exposed, nullifying their visceral effect in the actual movie. The CRIMSON PEAK trailers and commercials on TV showed far too much of the ghosts and gave away a lot of the plot. Heck, even the bleeding snow was shown repeatedly, and that’s one of the best bits in the film. Did the ads for CRIMSON PEAK give audiences too much of a peak? Yes, and it’s a shame.


Entertainment is inundated with horror right now

You'd think that a big budget horror movie ($55 million) from a major studio known for horror (Universal) with a tony cast (Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) would be a major event, right? Indeed, yet there is so much top drawer horror being done on TV these days that it may very well be stealing cinema’s thunder. AMERICAN HORROR STORY on FX just started its fifth season. That show’s creator Ryan Murphy also has a hit on Fox with his SCREAM QUEENS parody aimed at teens. And then there’s the sublime FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, now halfway thru its superb second season on the El Rey Network, shrewdly mixing tequila and Transylvania. Are audiences getting so many thrills and chills on weeknights that their weekends don’t need satiating? It would seem a strong possibility.

The scares aren't shocking enough

Shockingly, CRIMSON PEAK is rated R. There’s nothing in it that compares to the graphic and disturbing scenes on display in the premiere of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL a few weeks ago. Yes, CRIMSON PEAK has adult themes, but it’s scares are more Gorey than gory. Perhaps del Toro’s more sophisticated approach to the genre is not overt enough for the modern audience raised on SAW, HOSTEL and others. The best horror is driven by dread, not bloodletting, but most of the Hollywood product these days goes a lot farther than CRIMSON PEAK with its violence. This one may have almost seemed quaint in comparison.


If you haven’t seen CRIMSON PEAK, you shouldn’t let some of the negative buzz out there keep you away. It’s a superb thriller, expertly rendered in every way. It may not be as frightening as a lot of what’s on TV, but that shouldn’t keep horror fans from seeking out one of the year’s very best genre efforts.

Friday, October 16, 2015

10 THINGS YOU PROBABLY DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FILM COMPOSER JOHN WILLIAMS

Original caricature by Jeff York of John Williams (copyright 2015)

By now, every movie fan knows that John Williams was named the 44th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on Thursday, October 8. (I'm still celebrating it!) And most fans know the outstanding scores he wrote for such seminal classics as STAR WARS, JAWS, SUPERMAN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, HOME ALONE, the INDIANA JONES movies, as well as the first three HARRY POTTER films. But John Williams has been a major force in Hollywood for 60 years now and there are some fascinating facts about the brilliant composer that most fans are unaware of. Here are 10 that make his legend even more significant.

He was Johnny Williams when he first started in Hollywood

When John Towner Williams first came to Tinsel Town as an orchestrator and studio musician, he went by the moniker “Johnny Williams.” He was a big time jazz pianist and the more casual name suited the genre. He may have been classically trained at Julliard and the Eastmen School, but when he was first in the biz he went by a name less formal and far jazzier.

He played the opening riff for the PETER GUNN theme

Speaking of jazz, that’s Williams playing those famous opening bars for Henry Mancini’s composition for the Blake Edward TV series PETER GUNN (1958-1960). Williams did a lot of studio work then, playing his expert piano for other famed Hollywood composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein. Soon he would be their contemporary, but in his early Tinsel Town years, he was a sought after (ahem) “Gunn for hire.”

Williams wrote a number of TV theme songs

Did you know that Williams composed the underscore for the pilot episode of GILLIAN'S ISLAND? Even more importantly, Williams penned theme songs for 1960’s adventure series like TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS and LOST IN SPACE. In fact, Williams wrote two theme songs for the show about the Robinson family. The first year’s theme was deemed too dark by CBS so Williams wrote a more upbeat second version. That sufficed for the show’s final two seasons.

Williams scored a lot of disaster films

Continuing his collaboration with Irwin Allen, the producer of LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS, Williams scored three seminal disaster films for him in the 1970’s. He scored THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO and received Oscar nominations for the first two. Before he was Steven Spielberg’s favorite composer, he was Allen’s.

His first Oscar was for adapting Broadway

Sure, he was Oscar nominated for his scores for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969), but it was his adaptation of the Broadway hit FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 1971 that got him his first statue. Since then, Williams has gone on to win four other Oscars, along with 49 nominations in total. That’s an individual total second only to Walt Disney (56 nominations, 26 actual wins).

His CLOSE ENCOUNTERS theme was penned before filming

Spielberg needed Williams’ musical sequence for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before filming as it would play such a large part in the filmed narrative. Hence, Williams wrote his simple but sublime five-not theme months before he wrote the rest of his score for the film.

He succeeded Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops

Fiedler was a legend, directing the most popular orchestra on the planet, and when he stepped down after almost 50 years as conductor, the Pops knew they needed another big name. They turned to John Williams in1980, an artist at the peak of his fame. He accepted and raised the Pops baton for 13 years.

NBC loves him

Not only has Williams written the theme for the NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, but he also wrote the “Olympic Fanfare” for NBC and the theme for NBC’S MEET THE PRESS.

His favorite score is a “close” call

Of all of his scores he wrote, his favorite is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Williams described it as “…more than just Cellophane going through a projecting machine, it had a kind of life.” The AFI picked “Star Wars” but Williams liked another sci-fi theme better. 

Williams is the only below-the-line AF Lifetime recipient


Up until last week, the AFI had never awarded any talent who wasn’t a director, producer or actor. No screenwriter (unless they were also a director), no costume designer, no cinematographer, and no composer. Thus, the choice of Williams is significant on a number of levels. Like the criteria for the award, he is an artist who truly changed movies and whose work has stood the test of time. He’s also been a household name for five decades, so it’s long overdue. Still, with this huge, career-capping accolade, the AFI has finally evened the score.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

JOHN WILLIAMS GETS HIS DUE FROM THE AFI


For years, I have been trying to convince, cajole and harangue the American Film Institute to honor the exemplary composer John Williams for his immeasurable contribution to the world of cinema. Many have. I myself have called the AFI, written them letters, penned bitchy blog posts about it at The Establishing Shot as far back as 2011, and put my passionate thoughts into various posts in my capacity as an Examiner film critic online. Today, I am not only grateful, I am ecstatic! John Williams has just been selected as the 44th recipient of the AFI's Life Achievement Award.

Is it because of his amazing run of Oscar-winning scores that everyone and their brother can hum for the last 60 years? Is it because he is one of Hollywood's biggest talents ever? Perhaps even because Williams is going to be talked about everywhere again with the release of the new STAR WARS movie at Christmas because yes, Williams scored that one too. Yes, yes, and yes. But it's all good. 

Today, the AFI is recognizing the most important film composer in the history of the medium. They are recognizing the man who wrote the following classic films scores: 

JAWS
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
All of the STAR WARS movies
All of the INDIANA JONES movies
SUPERMAN THE MOVIE
JURASSIC PARK
E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
Most of the HARRY POTTER movies
SCHINDLER'S LIST
JFK
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE
THE TOWERING INFERNO
HOME ALONE
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

As well as those heralded, but maybe not as hummable by all:

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST
EMPIRE OF THE SUN 
A.I.
LINCOLN
WAR HORSE
MUNICH
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
NIXON
SABRINA
HOOK

And heck, even for some truly amazing TV theme songs too:

LOST IN SPACE
THE NBC NIGHTLY NEWS THEME
THE OLYMPIC FANFARE
MEET THE PRESS
AMAZING STORIES
LAND OF THE GIANTS
THE TIME TUNNEL

You can find all of his scores on his Wikipedia page and it is mammoth, impressive and unparalleled. Suffice it to say, Mr. Williams has all sorts of honors and awards, and his place in moviegoers' hearts is reward enough. But now he's got the AFI too. The capper of his stellar career. Thank you so much, AFI. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

And yet, you just watch - I'll bet he wins another Oscar for his coming STAR WARS score. And he'll likely deserve that accolade just as much.

Bravo, Maestro.  



Friday, October 2, 2015

"THE WALK" IS THE FEEL GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR




It's very possible that THE WALK, the new film by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, may be the “feel good” movie of the year. The story of Philippe Petit, the masterful acrobat whose feat of walking on a wire between the Two Towers at the World Trade Center in 1974 was always going to be awe-inspiring, but Zemeckis and his team have turned it almost into a fable. The result for moviegoers is a movie that not only puts them up on that wire 1350 feet above the ground but ensures that they walk out of the theater with their head still in the clouds.

Zemeckis wisely cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, because even when he’s playing a sexist, chronic masturbator as he did in his directorial debut in 2013’s DON JON he remains likable. (We’ll see if the same holds when he renders Edward Snowden for Oliver Stone next year.) Gordon-Levitt’s smile and twinkling eyes are delightful and they give his portrayal of the Frenchman Petit a “Pied Pieper” quality. He may beg, bully, and bluster his cohorts to help him pull off this dangerous and highly illegal stunt in downtown Manhattan, but he’s always charming in doing so.
 
Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from THE WALK>
And Zemeckis starts his story high atop another New York landmark – the Statue of Liberty – where Petit narrates his tale accompanied by a magical score from Alan Silvestri. The veteran composer practically sprinkles pixie dust on some of the more transcendent high wire scenes, imbuing them with a Disney feel, even though the movie’s being released by Sony.

If anyone saw MAN ON WIRE, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, they already know the story of Philippe Petit, and that he’s alive and well today, so Zemeckis wisely chooses to not create false drama out of whether or not his daredevil makes it or not across the wire. Instead, he focuses on all of Petit’s work that went into pulling off such an incredible feat. And in doing so, he ensures that the big set-piece of his movie, the walk across that wire, conveys all that went into it, and it renders it even more impressive.
The real Philippe Petit during his walk in 1974.
Still, the movie suffers some from the abundance of dialogue imbued with technical jargon regarding cables and such. At times, the plotting plays a bit like OCEAN'S ELEVEN where everything has to be explained to understand the complexity of its heist. Such exposition can get a bit monotonous and at times, your eyes may glaze over some. But what keeps the movie so enthralling despite such slow parts, are its three core assets – it’s a true story, Petit’s passion is wondrous to behold, and Zemeckis knows how to technically dazzle with all of his special effects.

Not only does he recreate that miraculous walk on the wire but he injects magical effects into the movie throughout. His camera zooms in and around Petit, starting with his address to us from high atop Lady Liberty’s torch. He adds spot color to key items in early black and white scenes like shoes and police uniforms to cleverly foreshadow their importance later in the movie. And Zemeckis makes sensational use of IMAX-3D and its surrounding sound system. This movie, like Petit’s walk, is an event.

Robert Zemeckis
It’s such a show-stopping directorial performance that at times Zemeckis competes with his own lead character as its top virtuoso. Thankfully, more often than not, his technical prowess complements that of Petit’s skills. Zemeckis’s talents are just as impressive in those areas that aren’t as obvious as special effects. He has always been very good with actors and he gets nice supporting turns from everyone in the cast. Ben Kingsley is quietly authoritative as Petit’s Paris mentor. James Badge Dale brings a welcome earthiness to Petit’s new friend from NYC who helps him pull off “the coup.” And, in particular, Charlotte Le Bon shines as Petit’s sage and supportive girlfriend. She’s one gorgeous ingénue, that’s for sure, with model looks that are almost as breathtaking as Petit’s feet and feats. But there’s a wonderfully down-to-earth spunk to Le Bon and she makes the ‘girlfriend role’ into something far more crucial.
Charlotte Le Bon with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie.
Of course, the success of this movie comes down to Petit’s famous walk, one he did back and forth no less than three times. To say that Zemeckis and crew deliver is an understatement. Despite Oscar prognosticators already pegging the new STAR WARS chapter as the film to beat for special effects, it really should be given to “The Walk” For rendering something that really happened so flawlessly.

Petit’s walk here is a myriad of things: it’s shocking, scary, funny, and exhilarating, often all at once. The addition of police trying to get him off the wire adds even more tension to the 20-minute set-piece. And yet, despite the marvelous believability of it all, it is actually the spiritual part of Petit’s walk that affects deepest. After he’s aced the walk across the wire, he feels called to stay up there a while. Thus, he convenes with the wind, city and the buildings in a way that is very religious. This is his temple and he indeed is touching God by being so high in the sky.


 It’s impossible to tell a story about the Twin Towers that doesn’t take us to that fateful 9-11 day as well. Perhaps Zemeckis glorifies their memory with a few too many slow crane reveals but their majesty is from Petit’s POV as well. Together, he and Zemeckis believe in the idea of looking up and dreaming big, no matter what the adversity. It’s infectious, and likely, the film’s great effect.