Argo

Argo movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Ben Affleck should not have to prove what a great movie director he is. But for those who, for some utterly bizarre reason, still believe they need further evidence to support this conclusion, I give you “Argo.” His third movie as a director tells the story of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez went about trying to extract six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It proves to be a very intense experience watching this movie, and I also got a huge kick over how it skewers Hollywood and the business of making movies as well.

I loved how Affleck really went out of his way to make “Argo” look like a 70’s movie. He even included the old Warner Brothers logo (referred to as the “Big W” logo) which preceded the studio’s movies from 1972 to 1984. I’ve really missed this logo for the longest time.

Anyway, when Iranian revolutionaries ended up storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six diplomats manage to evade capture and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, back in the United States, the State Department has learned of the escapees and their predicament, and they start looking for ways to get them out of Iran. It is Mendez who comes up with the idea, after watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television, to create a cover story of how the six are actually filmmakers from Canada who are scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This looks to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and it would have been fun to watch for all the wrong reasons had it ever been made.

The scenes where Mendez goes to Hollywood are among my favorites in “Argo” as he works with movie business veterans who are keenly aware that lying to others is part of their job description. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are priceless as make-up artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel, and they are given great pieces of dialogue to speak throughout. The lines Arkin is given are especially biting:

“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”

The tension is then ratcheted up tremendously when Mendez heads over to Iran to prep those six diplomats on how to get out of the country alive. You feel their collective anxiety as they become fully aware of how one little slip up will get them quickly executed in public view, and you are with them every step of the way as the walls continue to close in on them. Emotionally speaking, “Argo” is the first movie I have found myself crying after in a long time, and the tears I cried were from sheer relief.

“Argo” is based on a true story and, while this remains a serious pet peeve of mine, this is one which needed to be told. It wasn’t until 1997 that this rescue operation was declassified for all the world to know about, and it speaks a lot about how two countries can come together in a tough situation (in this case, the U.S. and Canada). Yes, portions of the story were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but that’s always the case so just get over it.

Affleck casts a lot of great acting veterans in “Argo,” and kudos to him for doing so. I’ve already mentioned Goodman and Arkin, but you will also find Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Philip Baker Hall doing terrific work here as well. As for the diplomats, they are played by such actors as Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, and they all are uniformly excellent.

In addition to directing this movie, Affleck also stars as Mendez and gives a particularly understated performance. I know we all love to pick on him as an actor, but he’s a better one than we give him credit for. Not once does Affleck try to steal the show from the actors around him, and his work is commendable as acting and directing a movie at the same time can be a real pain in the ass.

“Argo” has more than earned its place among the best movies of 2012, and it makes clear that Affleck’s success as a director is no fluke. This is a guy who has seen the heights of success and the utter embarrassment of failure, and he has come out the other side of it all proving he is a great talent whether he’s in front of or behind the camera.

Be sure to stay through the end credits as well as there is information you will need to hear about this true story.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

* * * * out of * * * *

Kirk Douglas Looks Back at ‘Lonely Are The Brave’

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The Ultimate Rabbit would like to wish Kirk Douglas a very happy 100th birthday. It is an age few people ever reach, and this is a man who has survived so much in his lifetime: Hollywood, anti-Semitism, a stroke, a helicopter crash and, tragically, the loss of a son. Still, Douglas persevered in spite of many obstacles thrown in his path, and in his 90’s he continued to work as an actor and a writer. The man who was Spartacus has reached a milestone which needs to be celebrated, but it should be no surprise he has lasted as long as he has. Happy Birthday Kirk!

The following article is of an appearance he made in Hollywood a few years ago in which he talked about one of his most enduring motion pictures.

“The best actors disappear into their roles, but icons always keep part of themselves onscreen. Every one of his characters makes hard choices as a figure of integrity. Not always a good guy, not always a bad guy, but a real guy.”

Those were the words writer Geoff Boucher used to introduce legendary actor Kirk Douglas who made a special appearance at the Egyptian Theatre on September 19, 2012. American Cinematheque was screening “Lonely are the Brave” in honor of the movie’s 50th anniversary, and Douglas was greeted with a thunderous and deserved standing ovation. Douglas thanked the audience for coming to see this movie which he made fifty years ago. He also added, “Don’t ask for your money back!”

Boucher pointed out how Douglas has made so many great movies, but this one in particular really stands out. In the movie, Douglas portrays John W. “Jack” Burns, a cowboy from the Old West who refuses to become a part of modern society. “Lonely are the Brave” is based on the book “The Brave Cowboy” written by Edward Abbey, and Douglas recalled being so intrigued by the character and his horse (Whiskey) and how the book spoke strongly about the difficulty of being an individual today. Douglas did, however, say his major problem was by the end of the movie the audience was “rooting for the horse instead of me!”

There was also talk about Dalton Trumbo who wrote the screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” and whom Douglas had previously worked with on “Spartacus.” Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities regarding their alleged involvement with the Communist Party, and he ended up spending 11 months in prison for contempt as a result. It was Douglas who helped Trumbo get a screenwriting credit on “Spartacus,” and he said he hated the injustice of what Trumbo was put through. Douglas’ latest book “I am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” deals with this extensively.

Douglas made it clear how after reading Abbey’s book, he felt there was no one who could do a better job of adapting it than Trumbo, and it is said he found Trumbo’s screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” to be perfect to where he didn’t change a single word of it.

Boucher also brought up that Douglas had some problems with “Lonely are the Brave” when it came out, and this was especially the case with the movie’s title:

“The book was called ‘The Brave Cowboy’ and I didn’t want that title,” Douglas said. “I wanted to call it ‘The Last Cowboy,’ but the studio which had the money insisted on ‘Lonely are the Brave.’ And I said, what the hell does that mean?”

Douglas has more than earned his status as an acting legend in Hollywood. Old age has not slowed him down one bit as he just finished a one-man show, released a new book, and took the time to appear at the Egyptian Theatre to talk about “Lonely are the Brave” which really is one of his very best movies. He finished his talk that evening by expressing his respect for actors who help other people, and of how he finds it sad that the media prefers instead to concentrate on the more “racy” things they do.

Boucher remarked at the amazing journey that Douglas has made from being “The Ragman’s Son” to going to all the places he has been and of having worked with all the great people he has worked with, and he commended the actor’s career for being guided not just by talent but integrity. That sentiment was shared by everyone in the audience in attendance as we were all very happy to see Douglas there, and he told them he was “glad and happy” they all came to see him and “Lonely are the Brave” which came out fifty years ago.

Knight of Cups

knight-of-cups-poster

Ever since he ended his decades-long hiatus with “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick has been very prolific as he keeps putting out one beautifully poetic film after another. He also remains a filmmaker people either love or hate as his work leaves audiences deeply polarized. His seventh film, “Knight of Cups,” is unlikely to change the perceptions people have of him, but those who admire him will find much to take in. It’s also a film which has what many of Malick’s films lack: a straightforward narrative.

“Knight of Cups” takes its name from the tarot card which, when held upright, represents change and new excitements especially of a romantic nature, and it can mean opportunities and offers. When the card is reversed, however, it represents unreliability and recklessness and indicates false promises. But moreover, the Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities, and offers, and who is constantly bored and in need of stimulation. This person is intelligent and full of high principles, but he is also a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.

The knight of Malick’s film is Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Christian Bale. When we first meet Rick, he looks to be living the high life as he attends parties in Los Angeles which look as decadent as they come, but while he looks to be enjoying himself, those famous Malick voiceovers reveal him to be a lost soul who finds he is not living the life he was meant to. From there he goes on a journey to find an escape from the emptiness he feels and discover more about himself.

The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards as Rick engages in relationships with different women as he searches for love and a sense of self. We also get to see the troubled relationships he has with his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) who looks to have been driven insane by the hardships of life, and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) whose life had been derailed by a drug addiction he has since gotten clean from. Throughout we get the usual Malick-isms of voiceovers, characters staring out into space and wanting to speak truthfully to those closest to them, and it’s all captured with a poetic beauty which continues to make Malick one of the more unique filmmakers working today.

Malick has the good fortune of working with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who just won his third Oscar in a row for “The Revenant,” and Lubezki captures the decadent landscapes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas with an inescapable beauty they don’t always have in reality. But he and Malick also capture the banality of them which quickly infects Rick’s soul, and the scenes where Bale is swimming in the violent ocean and wandering through a barren wilderness illustrates how inescapable his loneliness is.

It is said Malick shoots his films without a screenplay and instead gives the actors a storyline to improvise off of. This puts actors on an emotional tightrope which challenges them in ways they don’t often get challenged on, and the cast of “Knight of Cups” more than rises to the occasion. Bale is one of those actors who never backs down from any acting challenge given to him, and he gives yet another compelling performance in a career full of them. It’s also great to see Brian Dennehy here as this is the kind of film role we don’t always see him in, and it serves to remind us of how powerful an actor he can be when given the right role.

The movie also features a number of remarkable actresses playing the various lovers of Rick, and they all stand out in their own individual ways. Cate Blanchett, Australia’s answer to Meryl Streep, plays Rick’s physician ex-wife who still feels a connection to him even though she can’t quite get through to him. Imogen Poots rivets as the rebellious Della, Teresa Palmer makes Karen a most spirited and playful stripper who can seduce anyone with what seems like little trouble, and Frieda Pinto is the definition of serenity as Helen.

But one performance I was especially impressed with was Natalie Portman’s as Elizabeth, the woman Rick had wronged. After all these years, Portman remains a wonderfully vulnerable actress who is incapable of faking an emotion. She makes you feel the pain Elizabeth goes through, and you can’t take your eyes off of her for one second.

“Knight of Cups” proves to have a more straightforward narrative than Malick’s other films, and that’s saying something. His last film, “To the Wonder,” was good, but it meandered all over the place as he couldn’t decide which story was the more important one to tell. This time, however, he manages to stay with Rick and his romantic adventures for the majority of the film’s running time. It does veer off slightly when we get introduced to Antonio Banderas who plays the ironically named Tonio, a playboy who loves the company of more than just one woman. Considering Banderas’ recent stormy divorce from Melanie Griffith, his part in this film feels a bit voyeuristic as it seems like he is simply playing himself and explaining why his marriage to her fell apart.

“Knight of Cups” doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of “The Tree of Life” or “Days of Heaven,” but it is still a must for Malick’s fans as few other filmmakers can make a movie the way he can. Some will call it self-indulgent and complain it focuses on individuals who have it a lot better than the working class of America, but for those who relate to the journey Rick takes here, it is an immersive experience which leaves you guessing as to the possibilities open to him at the film’s conclusion.

It’s also worth watching to see characters drive their cars on the empty roads of Los Angeles at night. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows the roads are never that empty during the day, so it’s nice to know they are not always a traffic nightmare.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Mad Monster Celebrates The 25th Anniversary of ‘Star Trek VI’ in Hollywood

 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it has now been 25 years since “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” arrived in movie theaters. I still remember watching it with my parents at Blackhawk Cinemas like it was yesterday, thrilled that the original crew of the starship Enterprise managed to get one last adventure in space. For a time, it looked like that would not happen as “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” almost killed the franchise, but thanks to Leonard Nimoy taking on executive producing duties and Nicholas Meyer returning to the director’s chair, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew got a wonderful sendoff as they struggled to bring about a truce with their longtime enemies, the Klingons.

On July 13, 2016, Mad Monster hosted an anniversary screening of “Star Trek VI” at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. It was the perfect place for this screening as “Star Trek VI” had made its debut at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre next door, and the cast got to write their names in the cement outside of it. Appearing for this screening were producer Steven-Charles Jaffe, composer Cliff Eidelman, and Nichelle Nichols whom we all know and love for playing Lieutenant Uhura.

Star Trek VI Nichelle Nichols

Nichols was asked how she first got cast as Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, and she said that she didn’t remember as that this character has been with her for so long and that she likes “the gal” and described her as “nice company.” When it came to getting cast in this iconic role, she replied that she was “just lucky I guess.”

Steven Charles Jaffe

Jaffe pointed out that he previously produced “Ghost” and that Whoopi Goldberg told him if it weren’t for Nichols, she never would have become an actress. Goldberg had watched the original series and felt Nichols was such an inspiration to her and many generations of young actors as her role really represented racial diversity. Jaffe was also eager to add the following:

“The last week of shooting this movie, I was on the bridge of the Enterprise and we were setting up a shot and I was looking at the original cast, including Nichelle, and I had this very interesting flashback of being a little boy in Stanford, Connecticut in my pajamas watching ‘Star Trek’ on television with these same people, and here I am producing this movie and thinking what a lucky guy I am. I don’t know how this happened, but how special was that?”

To this Nichols added, “I was the lucky one.”

Cliff Eidelman

Eidelman’s score to “Star Trek VI” remains one of the most haunting of the franchise and helped propel the composer to new cinematic heights. But it turns out that Meyer wanted Eidelman to adapt Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets” as opposed to creating an original score. Eidelman said he had studied that piece “a little” in college but lied to Meyer and said he studied it a lot. However, Eidelman had something else in mind.

“The truth is I didn’t want to adapt ‘The Planets,’” Eidelman said. “As a young composer I wanted to write an original score that would be original for this project, but I didn’t say that to Nick and I kind of played along. Not long after we started talking about it I started writing original themes, and at some point I think the people at Paramount started to inquire about the cost of licensing ‘The Planets’ from the Holst kids. I think the cost was apparently very expensive. But anyway, you (pointing to Jaffe) came by my apartment along with some people from Paramount and Nick, and I started to play these themes of mine on my old upright piano, and I was humming what the strings would do and what the brass would do. And at some point I think Ralph Winter or somebody turned and said, ‘Well why are we licensing ‘The Planets’ when we’ve got this theme?’ So that was the end of ‘The Planets’ and I was able to go off and write my own score.”

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Nichols spoke at length about Gene Roddenberry, the man who created “Star Trek” and set the whole franchise in motion.

“I knew Gene before I went on the show, and he told me what he was planning and what it was going to be and that it would be on television,” Nichols said. “He wanted me to be a part of it, and I got nervous (laughs) because I loved working for him and he is very particular. But I think that was why I liked working for him because you didn’t have to guess what was going on and you didn’t have to guess what you were going to do. If you had something that you wanted to give beyond what you thought he was talking about, he was very open to listen to it and say yes or no just like that. Fortunately, he said yes more than he said no to me.”

In addition to producing “Star Trek VI,” Jaffe was also the movie’s second unit director. He said he has directed second unit on every movie he ever produced and that this started on Meyer’s first movie, “Time After Time.” The first thing Meyer had Jaffe shoot on “Star Trek VI” was the ice planet in Alaska, and in the process he said he experienced “premature global warming.”

“I went up to Alaska on this glacier three weeks before we started filming,” Jaffe said. “I storyboarded everything, I had every shot, every location I thought locked down, and three weeks later I came back with a full crew and several helicopters and everything was gone. They said, ‘Well, glaciers do move.’ And I said, ‘They don’t move that quickly.’”

“My job was to not stand out,” Jaffe continued. “It was weird because I had never shot second unit before the movie began, and I was very nervous because the studio would see my dailies before anybody’s. I figured somebody is probably doing this to get me fired off this movie really quick. Fortunately, Leonard (Nimoy) who was one of the producers and the studio liked what I did, and that was that.”

Jaffe also talked about how he and Meyer had finished making a movie in Germany before “Star Trek VI” (“Company Business”) when the Berlin Wall came down. Unfortunately, the studio they did it for was having a hard time and the movie got a horrible release. The two of them were hanging out at Meyer’s house in London when Nimoy called and told Meyer, “I got a new idea for ‘Star Trek;’ the wall falls down in outer space!” Jaffe said Meyer hung up on Nimoy and that they were both very drunk at the time, and Jaffe encouraged Meyer to call Nimoy back.

“Wait a minute, you don’t get this opportunity too many times,” Jaffe remembered telling Meyer. “It isn’t the same movie, but it’s the same theme as the film we just made. ‘Star Trek’ will get a release. We’re crazy not to do this.”

Before the Q&A ended and the movie began, Nichols had the last word of the evening as she talked about her most important addition to the character of Uhura before the cameras were rolling on the original “Star Trek” show.

“They hadn’t named her yet and I said, ‘What about Uhuru?’ And they looked at me funny and I said, ‘It means freedom.’ They said, ‘Well it’s kind of harsh.’ And I said, ‘Well, make it Uhura.’ And he (Roddenberry) says, ‘I like that.’ And I said, ‘I do too!’ And I became then and there for the rest of my life Uhura, and I’m glad to be here with you.”

Nichelle Nichols orginal Star Trek

Technically, the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” doesn’t occur until December 5, 2016, but it’s never too early to celebrate. This “Star Trek” movie succeeded in rejuvenating the movie franchise and helped give the original Enterprise crew the sendoff they richly deserved. After all these years it remains one of the best in the series as its themes of war, peace and change still resonate deeply in our everyday affairs. With “Star Trek Beyond” coming soon to theaters and a new “Star Trek” television series on the way, there is no doubt that this franchise will continue to live long and prosper from one generation to the next.

Star Trek Chinese Theatre

Star Trek VI last show of the crew

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