Monday, August 03, 2015

Old Person's Holmes

I recently posted something about the career of writer-director Billy Wilder.  Many see a demarcation between his earlier films written with Charles Brackett and his later written with I.A.L. Diamond.  This is fair, as far as it goes, but while many pick Brackett as the superior collaborator, I'd say Wilder made great films with both, as well as some great stuff without either.

But there's another line you can draw--a major turning point is his "late" films, that just don't have the zing of his earlier stuff.  Some have made a case for these later films (auteurists love it when directors slow down and revisit old themes), but at the very least he'd lost the zeitgeist.  When a popular artist no longer makes hits, there's a good chance something is missing.

All of this is prologue to seeing one of his later films--The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes--in a theatre recently.   I consider it his first "late" film.  Seeing it on TV years ago, I was not impressed.  Have my impressions (or have I) changed?

A little.

It's no classic--whereas the last of his old-style films, The Fortune Cookie (1966), is a near-classic--but it does have its charms.  Of course, what we're seeing is a hacked-up version of Wilder's intentions.  The original was planned as a three-hour epic but, afraid they had a white elephant, United Artists chopped it to pieces.

The main story deals with a mysterious woman showing up at 221B Baker Street, not knowing who she is or what she's doing there.  Holmes and Watson unravel her story, which takes them into Scotland and a fairly complex plot.

The film is different for Wilder in that, for once, he's not using big names.  His Hollywood career is studded with major stars, and there was talk early on of Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers for Holmes and Watson, but Wilder went with Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  I think this is a mistake--there's a reason these two never went on to become big names.

He's also going more for beauty than usual.  He was always a good director with memorable visuals, but he was also efficient, trying to serve the story.  In Sherlock Holmes, there's a lot of location shooting which doesn't add much--may even slow things down a bit.

Above all, of course, there's the writing.  Wilder always wrote clear, forward-moving plots, but he never quite gets his footing in this non-American period piece. He can't help but be entertaining, and even funny occasionally, but it's not the witty, sophisticated, clockwork mystery we expect from Holmes and Watson.

Also, I think Wilder--and Diamond--miscalculated.  Holmes keeps running into his condescending brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee, biggest name in the cast).  Fine.  But then, as we get near the climax, Mycroft invites Holmes over and explains everything to him. We're here to see Holmes solve the mystery--and be in danger while doing so--not have it handed to him on a silver platter, especially after he's been too stupid to see what's under his nose.

The film was an expensive flop.  Wilder would go on to direct four more films, none of them well-received, none of them major hits.  Perhaps it was the end of the Production Code that did him in.  He'd always been pushing the envelope, so when the envelope disappeared, he seemed more an old man trying to be with it.  Compare Sherlock Holmes to Wilder's Irma La Douce in 1963.  Both are colorful and lengthy, but Irma was Wilder's biggest money maker. It's not a great film, but it's bouncy and fun and deals with a naughty subject--prostitution--that wasn't everyday Hollywood product of the time.  But Holmes comes out in an age of Bonnie And Clyde and Easy Rider, so intimations of drug use and homosexuality didn't titillate as they once might have.

Still--perhaps because of low expectations--I did enjoy it. The film moves along pretty smoothly and goes down easy.  Don't listen to those calling it a lost classic, but you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Trailer Park

I don't watch Gotham.  Maybe it's a good show, but from what I heard, it sounds like Batman without Batman.  So when I read Supergirl is scheduled against Gotham, it wasn't like I had to decide which to watch.  I may not watch either, but if I'm picking one, it's the superhero story that's about a superhero.

It is odd that CBS is showing Supergirl.  I thought they made police procedurals for the older crowd.  Anyway, I checked out a "First Look" at the show and have a complaint.  A peek I get, but I swear I just watched the entire pilot, maybe even the first season.

PS  The show might work, but one thing that bothers me is a whole bunch of people know who Supergirl is. A lot of the fun of Superman is the secret identity stuff--the air goes out of the balloon if too many people know.

PPS  Maybe superheroes shouldn't be on TV at all.  A big portion of their appeal is spectacle, which is better served by the money and size of movies.  But story still counts most.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Changing my mind

Okay. I've been persuaded. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

News from 1999

They Accepted It

I didn't much watch the original Mission: Impossible TV show, but I think the movie series is pretty good. (Though Tom Cruise ends up doing everything--so much for the ensemble idea.) But the one thing I loved about the show was the theme song.  Composed by the great Lalo Schifrin, it was originally just meant as part of the show's background score, but was so good they put it right up front.

One thing that really catches the ear is the 5/4 time signature.  Which I why I, like so many other fans of the theme, was outraged when U2, being jerky rock and roll musicians, changed the tune to everyday 4/4, taking away the excitement.

So it's good to report in the latest M:I film, Rogue Nation, the opening theme sticks to 5/4.  Don't mess with a classic.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Patty Smyth Story.

I just picked up Patti Smith: America's Punk Rock Rhapsodist (quite a mouthful) by Eric Wendell.  It's part of the Tempo series of introductory books on modern musicians, including Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon and Bon Jovi (?).  I support the concept, but the first chapter is not giving me confidence.

On Page 5, we get this: "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was Smith's first 45; however, it was not the first single that she purchased.

I can't make head or tail of this.  A 45 is a single, and earlier on the same page Wendell writes Patti purchased "Big Rock Candy Mountain," so it wasn't given to her. If Wendell knows the first single she bought, he should say so--if not, don't bring it up.  Or go ahead and pretend you know, just don't claim a 45 isn't a single.

Page 9:  [Her mother] introduced Patti to vocal jazz singers such as Chris Connor and June Christy...

Late in the same paragraph, quoting Patti from an interview on NPR:  When I was a teenager, I dreamed of being [...] a jazz singer like June Christie or Chris Connor...

1)  So I guess we know where he got the original bit of information, since he gives us the source three sentences later.

2)  There was a jazz singer named June Christy, but no one, as far as I can tell, named June Christie, so either this is a mistake, or Patti spells it wrong when she says it in interviews.

3)  "Vocal jazz singers"?  Are there another kind?

I'm not sure if I can take a whole book of this.

PS I read a bit further and on page 26:  [Playing for several weeks at an important club] proved to be detrimental in the group's forming an eternal dialogue with one another.

I'll ignore the overheated rhetoric and merely note from context I'm pretty sure he means "instrumental" and not "detrimental."

PPS  Page 33:  [Patti] wanted a producer who would have been more of a technician than [John] Cale's made genius persona.

Unless Cale was in the mob, I think Wendell means "mad genius persona."

PPPS Page 36:  [Patti's first album] Horses ends with the track "Land"...

Page 37:  [Horses'] closing track is the song "Elegie"...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What is it with guys named Andrew?

So Breitbart isn't dead, after all.

Nine More Undercover Videos Ready To Drop On Planned Parenthood

Wicked smart. (Though it was a mistake to reveal how many.)

Dick's Picks

I just read Richard Schickel's Keepers: The Greatest Films--and Personal Favorites--of a Moviegoing Lifetime.  Schickel has spent a lifetime reviewing films, as well as writing more than twenty books and producing numerous documentaries on various cinematic subjects.  So his opinions count for something.

But while the book is pleasant enough, it tends to read as the ramblings of an old man--it almost seems like a transcript of a conversation one might have with him as he flits from one film to another.  Though his chapters generally move in chronological order, he rarely spends more than a paragraph or two on his favorites, almost never going more than two pages on any single title.  So we tend to get little more than a quick opinion or plot summary, sometimes with an autobiographical note about how he first saw the film, or met the director.  He's done much better when he's delved into subjects.

He starts with the silent era, and I was startled by one pronouncement so much I almost stopped reading: he felt the Marx Brothers were mostly forgotten. (Don't ask me why he brings them up while discussing silent comedy.) He doesn't bother to mention any particular film of theirs, saying they don't quite live up to their reputation.  Quite a claim regarding a group that not only still lives on, but manages to make audiences laugh 85 years after they started in film.  This turns out to be only the first of many claims about films' reputations that I found questionable. 

Meanwhile, for his favorite Chaplin he picks The Circus.  Really?  The least highly regarded of Chaplin's major silent features?  (I've read Schickel on Chaplin before so I wasn't entirely surprised.)  Then he chooses The Navigator as his favorite Keaton--the film I consider to be Buster's most overrated.

In general, though, Schickel mostly picks good films (as you'd expect, I suppose) in his trip down memory lane.  Certain eras he seems to like more than others--he considered the mid to late 30s perhaps the best Hollywood has to offer, for instance.  But he lists titles from every decade and chooses from every genre.  He does however, favor Hollywood over foreign titles, and discusses the popular more than the arty.

Like someone rambling, he makes many mistakes. To mention a few: He twice refers to the character Filiba in Trouble In Paradise as Filibia; he claims Sullivan's Travels, the fourth film Preston Sturges directed at Paramount, is only the second to feature William Demarest, when in fact Demarest appears in all eight of Sturges' Paramount films; and for some reason, he believes Harold Arlen wrote the music for Pinocchio.  Where was the editor?  He also has some questionable information. He notes, for example, that a Woody Allen associate assures him all of Woody's films make money.  Sounds questionable to me, but Schickel simply accepts it and passes it along.

Overall it's an enjoyable trip, conjuring up many of the biggest stars and directors films have offered in the past century.  It's far from Schickel's best, but it does offer a fair overview of his life as a filmgoer.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rock band names

Furious naked sunbathers

That's an offal list

More than 1,000 experts in the field of artificial intelligence [signed] an open letter [that] paints a stark scenario of future conflicts akin to something from the film franchise Terminator.

Well, I don't know what Kool Aid those guys are drinking, but I for one an willing to support our new overlords in every way they know how.

Gold Dust Woman

There are a fair number of books about Fleetwood Mac.  The most recent, as far as I can tell, is Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumors by Zoi Howe.  I read it, mostly to find out about her early years, up through the first couple of albums with the band that made her famous.

It's an odd story, in its way.  Born in 1948, she had a natural talent, not to mention looks.  She met her future partner Lindsey Buckingham when still in high school.  A few years later, she and he were part of a band called Fritz, achieving a certain amount of success in the late 60s/early 70s.  Eventually they realized (because others told them) they had the talent to make it on their own.

They got a record deal and put out on album in 1973.  It wasn't a hit, but insiders knew they had something.  These were the years of struggle.  Stevie was the breadwinner, doing jobs such as being a restaurant hostess, while Lindsey stayed home, perfecting his musical style.  He eventually went on tour playing guitar and doing vocals with Don Everly of the Everly Brothers.  Meanwhile, Stevie worked on her songs.

But for all their talent, they probably weren't going to be famous.  Until they were noticed by Mick Fleetwood.  The British band Fleetwood Mac had been around for years, and had seen a fair amount of success--perhaps not the absolute top, but degrees about Buckingham and Nicks.  There was much internal dissension, however, most recently with band member Bob Welch quitting and suing the others.  But the band, at the time just Mick with other original member John McVie and his wife Christine, were determined to go on.  Mick wanted Buckingham, but it was understood if he were hired, Stevie had to come along as well.

Ironically, though Mick and John were where the band's name came from, it was their three singers and songwriters, Stevie, Lindsey and Christine, who'd take them to new heights.  And, when you get down to it, Stevie--the one who didn't play an instrument--was probably the most important, both for image and music.

The first album this new grouping made, Fleetwood Mac, was the band's tenth.  (The band's first album was also called Fleetwood Mac, and this was like a rebirth.) None of their albums had been top ten, and most didn't even go gold, but this went to #1 and went multi-platinum.  Their next album two years later, Rumours, was even bigger, going diamond which is platinum times ten.

Of course, along with the success came a lot of drugs--cocaine especially--and strained relationships.  Some of their songs were about how painful things were--and the other had to sing backup.  (In fact, Rumours got its title from all the questions about who was sleeping with whom.) There were plenty more hit albums and singles to come, by both the band and Stevie solo--including her #1, multi-platinum Bella Donna--but it was all done when they were superstars. It was the out-of-nowhere rise of the band that was so surprising.

Let's look at those first two albums. Fleetwood Mac has one fine song after another.  Christine McVie creates standards such as "Over My Head" and "Say You Love Me."  Lindsey Buckingham introduces "Monday Morning." But Stevie take the honors with "Landslide" and especially "Rhiannon," the highlight of many a concert and practically her theme song.

Next came Rumours, and from Christine we hear "Don't Stop" and "You Make Loving Fun."  From Lindsey "Second Hand News" and "Go Your Own Way." Stevie supplies not only "I Don't Want To Know" and "Gold Dust Woman," but once again provides the extra special number that puts it over the top, "Dreams"--the band's only #1 single in America.

Future hits from Stevie include "Sara," "Gypsy," and solo numbers like "Edge Of Seventeen."  Today, in her late 60s, she's still out there, performing.  And if Mick hadn't asked her and her boyfriend to join the group, maybe none of it would have happened.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Haven't I been saying this?

Jeb should run as a Dem. He's perfect for it. Heck, I wouldn't even mind if he were elected, as a Dem. Not sure it could save the country at this point, but it could save their party, assuming the country survives.

How about we put them at the judge's house?

So many easy, obvious things we could do if we had an American as president.

Repatriate them immediately over the border.

Improve their facilities, paid for by defunding the judge's court.

But since we don't, let's give them drivers licenses and register them to vote--really, it's a human right, isn't it?--and move them to, say, Ohio or North Carolina.

Ever Since Adam

Here's a piece in the Hollywood Reporter by John DeFore about how after Pixels Adam Sandler is finished.  Okay, it's been pretty clear his charmed career is in trouble.  But right off the bat we get this:

Adam Sandler's name on a film was never a guarantee of yuks or bucks, but once upon a time [...] it inspired more hope than dread.

I don't remember a time when Sandler's name on a movie inspired hope, but that's about taste.  On the other hand, how can a writer in one of the top show biz periodicals claim the Sandler name wasn't a guarantee of bucks?  For over a decade he was the most consistent earner of any comedy star, perhaps of any movie star.  He would occasionally try something different, and those films generally weren't big, but as long as he made an "Adam Sandler" film--which he not only starred in, but often wrote or produced--it was the surest bet in Hollywood.

Let's review his career.  After a couple of misfires, he established himself in the mid-90s with a couple of low-budget minor hits, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore.  Then, in 1998, he had a solid hit, The Wedding Singer, which grossed $80 million (all figures domestic).  From this point on, he was unstoppable.

His next two films, The Waterboy and Big Daddy, in 1998 and 1999, were huge, both grossing over $160 million.  And while his budgets were inching up, they were still relatively low. However, his next film was a rare misfire, Little Nicky.  It grossed just under $40 million, while it was Sandler's first truly big budget, at over $80 million.

He quickly regained his footing, though, and from 2002 to 2011, every single "Adam Sandler" film made over $100 million: Mr. Deeds, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Bedtime Stories, Grown Ups and Just Go With It.  They had to gross a lot, because Sandler, being a sure thing, demanded a lot of money, and his budgets were now averaging around $80 million.

Meanwhile, every now and then he tried to stretch, and in every case the audience rejected the attempt. Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me--none of them made even half of what an "Adam Sandler" film made.  Even when he teamed up with hot comedy director Judd Apatow and co-starred with Seth Rogen in Funny People the result was a financial fizzle.

But that was okay. It was the "Adam Sandler" films that paid the bills.  In recent years, though, even they've proved to be iffy propositions.  Jack And Jill in 2011 made $74 million.  That's My Boy in 2012 made half as much.  For big-budget comedies, these numbers aren't acceptable.  He had a bit of a comeback in 2013 with Grown Ups 2, but that was a sequel, pre-sold, and was a distinct fall-off from the first Grown Ups.

Last year he reteamed with Drew Barrymore in Blended. Their previous two films, The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, were hits, but this one grossed only $46 million.  It's worth noting, however, that the budget was only $40 million, half of a normal Sandler budget. Clearly Hollywood had caught on, and wasn't going to pay as much for his tarnished brand.

Pixels probably sounded like a good idea, but apparently (based on the critics--I haven't seen it) it doesn't deliver, and looks like it'll be another disappointment.  So perhaps his career has turned a corner.  Pretty much every film comedian eventually runs out of steam as the audience gets tired of his antics and moves on to the latest thing.  But even if Sandler never has another hit, he's had one of the biggest careers of any clown ever.

PS  Speaking of entertainment writers with bad math skills, look at Pete Hammond on the BBC list of top American films:

In a comprehensive new poll of the 100 Greatest American Films of all time, released this week by BBC Culture, only a measly 12 Academy Award winning Best Pictures turn up at all, and only 8 of them in the top 75.

Is he kidding?  12 out of 100 is 8%, a whopping huge number.  The ratio of all American films (not even including unknown indies) to Best Picture winners is what--a 100 to 1, a 1000 to 1?  And yet they managed to take one out of eight slots available.  And quite a few others on the list were nominated for Best Picture, or won an Academy Award in a different category.  Also, a few of the films on the list, like Birth Of A Nation and The Gold Rush, were released before the Oscars were given out, and might have won the top award if given a chance.

If I heard 12 out of the top 100 of an all-time list won the Best Picture Oscar, my first reaction would be what a rotten list that so ridiculously favors Hollywood favorites.

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