The Seasoned Ticket #12

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

The Grand Illusion brings back John Frankenheimer’s terrific 1998 film Ronin for a brief run this week. This reminds me of the time I interviewed the man in 2000, for a piece originally published in the Herald and republished, well, right here and now.

One of the cool things about John Frankenheimer is that he really looks like a classic American director. Tall, and still athletic-looking at the age of seventy, Frankenheimer has a white-haired, hawk-faced largeness about him.

Of course, it probably helps that I am meeting him in a Seattle hotel room so big it seems positively Roman-emperor-scaled. The director is here to do publicity for his new thriller Reindeer Games, but I am delighted to discover him just as willing to talk about his previous films.

Reindeer Games, coming on the heels of Ronin, represents something of a return for John Frankenheimer. In the 1950s, he was one of the bright young talents of the golden era of television, and his extraordinary string of successes in the early sixties brought him great acclaim: Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, and above all the political thriller par excellence, The Manchurian Candidate. Since then, he has bounced around a bit, scoring the occasional commercial hit and residing in Europe for a number of years. He regained his form this decade by working in edgy cable movies, a graceful return to TV.

I ask Frankenheimer about his visual style, which continues to be dynamic. “I don’t want this to sound like a cliché,” he said, “but I’m a person—all my life—who thinks with my eyes. I’ve always been an extremely visual person…I draw fairly well. I’ve spent a lot of time in art museums, studying painting. So when I read a script that I like, I start to see a vague impression. With this movie, what I saw was this bleak landscape. That that was really a character in this movie.

“I tend to see things in black and white. So what I’ve tried to do in all my movies is reduce the color. There’s a palette is of real earth tones… all the costumes are very neutral. The sets are painted colors that don’t intrude. All the set dressing was chosen for lack of color. Then, at the end of the day, what we do is take the film into the laboratory and de-saturate it. That’s very important to me. I feel [black and white] is much more dramatic and much starker. It tells the story much better. I don’t like color. Except when it’s used by somebody like David Lean.

“Also I think in terms of compositions. All my compositions are done to make you feel a little bit uneasy. And to provoke suspense, tension. I never want you to get terribly comfortable watching one of my movies.”

In nearly every aspect of describing the Reindeer Games working process, Frankenheimer spoke with the meticulous care of an old-school craftsman. “I call it kind of hyper-realism,” he said. “It’s not documentary, it’s making things realer to me than they are. There’s a lot of camera movement, a lot of things going on in the frame.”

I had to ask Frankenheimer about The Manchurian Candidate, a movie so ingrained in the American consciousness that it is linked in some people’s minds with the JFK assassination—and has even been mentioned lately in connection with John McCain (with the sinister and completely unfounded theory that a POW might be brainwashed into entering politics at the behest of a foreign power). Frankenheimer described the excitement of Candidate, a 1962 picture, being re-released to theaters in the late 1980s. “We were able to sit down and negotiate a contract to re-release the movie. And they said, okay, we’ll put it out on videocassette. And Frank Sinatra said, ‘No, I really want it in the theaters. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ And they said, ‘Well, we really don’t feel it warrants the expenditure of the two million dollars it would take to advertise this to put it out in theaters.’

“Sinatra said, okay. And he reached into his pocket—I was in the room when he did it—and he took out a check, he wrote it out for two million dollars, handed it to these guys and said, ‘I want it in theaters. If you have a problem, just use this.’

“Well, of course they never did have to use it, because it was a huge hit. But that’s how it got into theaters.”

I asked him whether he had identified with the Robert De Niro character in Ronin, an experienced criminal on a job. “My contention is this,” he said. “An amateur only does something when he or she wants to do it. A professional does something when he or she doesn’t want to do it. There have been times in my life when I did not want to be on a movie set. But I was there. Yeah, I definitely did identify with the De Niro character. Very much so.” If “professional” is the right term for John Frankenheimer, he carries it well.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

Movie Postmortems: SPECTRE

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out what the hell happened.

(Movie Postmortems will run on an alternating schedule with Cinema Jackpot!)

 

THE CASUALTY: Spectre

THE CASE HISTORY: November 2012. The 23rd installment in the long-running James Bond franchise is released and becomes an instant success. Skyfall is showered with glowing reviews and stellar box-office. By the time it finishes its worldwide theatrical run, the film grosses over a billion dollars – a definite franchise best. The previous record was set by the similarly-lauded Casino Royale in 2006:  $599 million. There is no denying the massive global impact of Skyfall.

With the near-universal success of Skyfall, the divisive Quantum of Solace from 2008 becomes a distant memory. The Bond franchise even gets some Oscar cachet with the nomination of Adele’s title song for an Academy Award in 2013 – which she wins. Eager to continue down the promising path set by Skyfall, EON recruits its director, Sam Mendes, to return to the driver’s seat. Development on the 24th Bond film begins with a target release date of November 2015.

December 2014. At a press conference in London the official cast of the next Bond film are introduced. Joining Daniel Craig on his next 007 mission are Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Dave Bautista, and Christoph Waltz (in addition to the usual MI-6 stalwarts played by Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Rory Kinnear, and Ben Whishaw). The rumors that Waltz will be playing  a modern incarnation of classic Bond Baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld seem to be confirmed by the reveal of the film’s title: Spectre.

November 2015. Spectre opens big around the world. In North America, its debut is just behind Skyfall’s but still impressive. However, while critical notices are somewhat positive in the United Kingdom, the reviews and word of mouth in the United States are decidedly mixed to negative. A national magazine even calls Spectre the “worst Bond film in 30 years.” Elsewhere, a major West Coast newspaper suggests Craig and Mendes should have been replaced after Skyfall to end the era on a high note.

This negative word of mouth slows Spectre’s  roll in North America. After a solid $70 million domestic opening weekend, the movie struggles to hit the $200 million mark and barely reaches it. Overseas business is noticeably down from  Skyfall’s run but still good. Spectre ends its global run with an overall take of around $880 million. It’s financial success notwithstanding, though, the general critical and audience consensus in North America is that Spectre is a weak follow-up to Skyfall.

What the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Spectre is structured like a mystery/thriller with some action sequences. We follow Bond on a winding trail as he follows clues to uncover the identity of the man behind the titular organization. Except it turns out he’s known the truth along. For a mystery to work, both the protagonist and audience need to be on the same footing and discover things at the same time. For a thriller to work, the audience can be ahead of the protagonist to create suspense and thrills. Unfortunately, the audience is in the dark for much of Spectre – which has a dulling effect on the pace.

And when the dark-twist-that-Bond-knew-all-along is revealed, it turns out to be so utterly misguided and lame that one half-expects it to be a joke. Surely the canny, savvy Barbara Broccoli who gives final sign-off on all decisions from scripting to casting to production would not have approved this choice. Yet, there it is on full, serious display. Whoever pitched it to her (reportedly Mendes and screenwriter John Logan’s idea) must have really hyped it up. Quite frankly, it’s the worst idea ever. It’s the one flaw above all others that ultimately does Spectre in.

There’s also something disconcertingly retro about the treatment of women in the Craig Bond films. Yes, Casino Royale’s harsh fate for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was true to Ian Fleming’s source novel and was necessary to harden Bond’s outlook. However, no such convenient excuse exists for how the majority of the other female characters have been consistently treated in the last four films. Solange Dimitrios, Agent Fields, and Severine – despite solid performances from Caterina Murino, Gemma Arterton, and Berenice Marlohe – were ultimately all thankless sacrificial lambs killed off after fleeting appearances.

Even the celebrated Skyfall had some questionable gender politics apparent for anyone willing to look deeper. Besides the already mentioned callous handling of Severine, that film paints Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) as a capable field agent who ultimately elects to take a desk job instead – as the assistant to a male bureaucrat (Ralph Fiennes). Then there’s M (Judi Dench) who is finally promoted to full Bond Heroine status – only to be killed off almost casually at the end for all her trouble. Needless to say, she deserved a better fate.

This trend continues in Spectre with the much-hyped but barely-there appearance of Monica Belluci as just another Bond conquest (at least she isn’t killed off this time). Lea Seydoux is the nominal heroine and is a fine actress – but despite some intriguing potential her character is quickly relegated to “damsel-in-distress” status. Seydoux arguably had more impact in her much smaller turn as an assassin in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Overall, the only woman to emerge unscathed from the Craig era so far is Olga Kurylenko as Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace. Camille never once registers as a victim and successfully resists Bond.

The regression of the current Bond films to the gender practices of some of the earlier Bond films is unfortunate when you consider the entries from the Dalton and Brosnan eras unfailingly gave us strong, resourceful female characters who were well-utilized and not marginalized. In those films, “sacrificial lambs” were the exception rather than the unfortunate rule they have become with the Craig films. Spectre is also the first Bond film without Judi Dench and her absence is very noticeable. The M-Bond dynamic between Fiennes and Craig is simply not as interesting as the Craig-Dench connection – and Spectre is all the weaker for it.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Seems like the folks behind Skyfall got a little over-confident because of its success and made some ill-advised choices in realizing Spectre. Which is too bad, because they also made a few well-advised choices. Unfortunately, these were pretty much overshadowed by the ill-advised ones. Spectre’s mixed reception reportedly scuttled a direct follow-up in 2017. Bond 25 is not expected now until November 2019. Back to the drawing board. Again.  Hopefully it’s “bye-bye” to Blofeld…

NEXT CASUALTY: The Haunting – “Some Houses Are Born Bad.

Our next Postmortem is another flick that did okay at the box-office but still left most critics and audiences cold. And not out of fear or dread. Nope, this 1999 remake of the classic supernatural chiller from 1963 boasted a large budget, talented cast, and an interesting reimagining of the original premise. Except the end result was less scary than your average Goosebumps book.  In fact, The Haunting (version ’99) is often cited as an example of how not to remake a horror movie. What went wrong?

 

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

The Seasoned Ticket #11

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

I’m still thinking about Elvis, and in lieu of good ideas this week, I dug up a past piece of writing that has me baffled. Did I wrote this for Film.com, one of the internet’s original movie websites (I mean, check out that web address—founder Lucy Mohl was really thinking ahead), back in the mid-90s? I think maybe. I have been into Elvis movies since childhood, when they were a staple of TV movie packages, and I wanted to say a couple of things. I had obviously just read Peter Guralnick’s great biography, and cite it in the piece. Guralnick is interviewed in the new documentary The King, and the movie could use more of him.

Anyway. If they’re not showing Elvis movies on TV with any regularity, you can come to Scarecrow and get the goods. In the meantime, here’s a vintage thinkpiece.

Elvis and the Colonel: Easy Come, Easy Go

In the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us—a comedy about Catholic schoolboys in the mid-sixties—the teenage heroes trundle off to catch the latest Elvis Presley picture at their Brooklyn movie house. Staring up at the screen, one of them ponders the image of the rock god in Hollywood: “Man,” the kid says, “What’d they do to Elvis—cut his balls off?”

That is as valid an observation as any about the dismal spectacle of Elvis’s movie career. There’s no sadder chapter in the rock-movie catalog than this transformation of a raw young colt (Elvis ’56) into a pasty-faced zombie (Elvis ’66), able to rouse himself out of his donuts-and-tranquilizers haze just long enough to deliver a half-hearted karate chop. Blame for this has always gone to Elvis’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who dictated the trajectory of his movie-mad client’s Hollywood career; but let’s not forget that The King had the ultimate say in his own work, and lacked the invention, the taste, or the balls to do something about his mostly plastic film vehicles.

In Peter Guralnick’s beautiful two-part biography of Presley, the deal-making machinations of Colonel Parker are fascinatingly detailed, and they say a lot about why Elvis movies became so formulaically tawdry so quickly. The Colonel’s goal through the 1960s was to keep Elvis one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood; but he also remained fanatically insistent on keeping the budgets for Presley pictures low, so there’d be a bigger slice of the chocolate-cream pie at the end. The perverse logic went something like this: whereas most actors experiencing success in movies would see the budgets and shooting schedules of their films increase in direct relation to their box-office profile, Colonel Parker arranged it so that Elvis’s films would be shot cheaper and quicker. It was the kind of short-sighted craftiness that would appeal to the Colonel’s huckster soul and Elvis’s Tupelo-bred appetites. And that’s how you get to the netherworld of Clambake and Spinout.

Elvis began with promise, and his pre-Army movies are neat entertainments—King Creole (1958) actually feels like the start of something special. The kid’s acting is green, obviously, but there’s an interesting wariness there, and no fakery; and when he cuts loose in song, as in Jailhouse Rock (1958), the voltage is live. In retrospect, Blue Hawaii (1961) marks a turning point: a fun movie, but its success set the Elvis formula in an increasingly hardening paste of peanut butter and bananas. Thenceforth E would be cast as a racecar driver, a water-skiing instructor, a roustabout, and engage in some contractual singin’ and scrappin’ while looking sleepily indifferent to the shoddiness of the scripts and sets. By 1970 the movie thing was dead, briefly propped up by a couple of concert documentaries. He had occasional chances, as when Barbra Streisand asked him to play the male lead in her remake of A Star is Born (1976), and you can imagine the weird pathos he might have brought to that ridiculous project. But the Colonel screwed the deal by asking for more than Elvis was worth at that point (as though pretending it was still 1962 could make it so), and it would have been a cruel sight anyway—seeing Elvis play a has-been and an addict, a role much closer to himself than anything he’d done since those early Young Man With a Guitar flicks. At that point Elvis was tired, almost gone, and “the movies” in his life consisted of kung fu pictures unspooling at midnight at a Memphis theater.

Without question, some of the riper titles from the Presley filmography have a rich camp appeal, and that’s the only way something like Stay Away, Joe is bearable. But even on that level, you can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy through the most absurd of his movies when they flash across a late-night cable viewing. It’s hard not to sigh and think: poor Elvis—if only he’d done something.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

An all new SHRIEK this Thursday!

This Thursday, SHRIEK: Women of Horror presents a classic, the original FRIDAY THE 13TH! Camp it up with us for this summer slash fest. Summer camp attire encouraged.

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Cinema Jackpots: MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING

by John S. 

Cinema Jackpot! is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.

(Cinema Jackpot! runs alternately with Movie Postmortems)

THE CONTESTANT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

THE ODDS: It’s common knowledge that The Big Studio Development Process is one that can radically change a screenwriter’s idea to the point where the end result is very different from the original concept. This minefield was one Canadian actress/comedienne Nia Vardalos had to negotiate while shopping around her idea for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a comedy based on her experiences with her eccentric Greek-Canadian family – and the humorous impact her husband (actor/comedian Ian Gomez) had on the clan when he married into it.

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