Flashdance in Hell

About every decade there’s a movie that comes along about the artistic underdog who triumphs over adversity. In the 1980s it was Flashdance with its tale of a welder/dancer making it into a prestigious dance school while romancing a handsome guy who supports her dream. The story was preposterous. Not that you could have a welder who was also a dancer. I had a friend who was both, and the film was roughly (very roughly) based on a real person. What was preposterous was that they could make it into the school without a monomaniacal dedication to their craft. Last year, Whiplash portrayed the reality of seeking to become the one of the best in a particular artistic field – in its case, drumming – and it won J.K. Simmons a well-deserved Oscar for best supporting actor. The independent film was in limited release so unless you were in a city with an arthouse theater, you probably didn’t get a chance to see it. Now it’s available on demand and video as well as on the Starz channel, and it is well worth a viewing.

Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) plays Andrew, a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City who finds himself singled out for attention by Terrance Fletcher (Simmons), a prominent jazz musician who leads the school’s jazz studio band. Andrew is close to his father (Paul Reiser) with whom he attends revival arthouse films, and he awkwardly begins dating Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a concession girl at the theater. But while he’s a sweet kid, he also has a burning desire to become one of the greats in jazz drumming, on the level of Buddy Rich.

Fletcher may be his guide to that goal, but Andrew quickly learns that the teacher looks at instruction as a blood sport, a Darwinian competition where only the best survive. He’ll take any sign of weakness, any personal disclosure, and use it to hammer the student, and Fletcher isn’t above actual physical hammering either. Fletcher may be exactly what Andrew needs to push him into the stratosphere of the musical world, but there’s no guarantee he’ll survive the trip.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle conceived the film based on his experiences in a competitive jazz band in high school, though he turned up the intensity level to eleven. The script sat unproduced for a while, and was listed as one of the best unproduced scripts in 2012. (Another movie from last year that also received that notice was The Imitation Game.) In 2013 Chazelle made a short film out of fifteen pages of the script and showed it at Sundance. It was enough to get the full movie produced.

Simmons has been a ubiquitous supporting actor in TV and film. IMDb lists over 150 credits for him in the last twenty years. For sixteen years he was Dr. Emil Skoda, the psychologist for the prosecution on “Law and Order” while also spending six years as Vern Schillinger on the HBO prison series “Oz.” As Fletcher, Simmons is terrifyingly intense but also cunning. He’s like a tiger watching his prey. At times you might think he’s just a pussy cat, but he’s just waiting for you to drop your guard so he can pounce.

Miles Teller matches Simmons’s intensity and drive. In a sense the movie is like a boxing match with a talented neophyte going up against the cagey champion. It helps the reality of the movie that Teller is an experienced drummer and Simmons has a degree in conducting from the University of Montana, where his father was the director of the School of Music. You don’t have a Flashdance situation where you have Marine Jahan providing the dancing for Jennifer Beals. Late in the movie, when Fletcher is playing piano at a jazz bar, if you’re an experienced pianist you’ll see that Simmons has the fingering correct.

Besides the Supporting Actor Oscar for Simmons, who also won the Golden Globe and about every other award available for his performance, Whiplash took home Oscars for film editing and sound mixing, and was nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay. This movie is the anti-Flashdance, the one that tells you to be great you’ll have to bleed for your craft. In a way, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Jung at Heart

Pixar has always mined unusual story themes for its animated films, right from the beginning with its hopping lamp. Children’s toys, fish in the sea, futuristic robots, and cars have all been at the base of its anthropomorphic stories. Even when the movies deal with humans, it explores places where animated films have rarely gone, like the loss of a spouse. Pixar is also exceedingly good at these stories; with all the romantic movies that have been made over the past hundred-plus years of film history, easily one of the top ten is the first seven or so minutes of Up. Now Pixar has merged the anthropomorphic and the human to basically give a children’s primer on Jungian psychology with Inside Out.

Writer/Director Peter Docter has had a hand in many of Pixar’s successes, including the Toy Story series, Up, and Wall-E. He’s also dealt with our emotions before – specifically fear – in Monsters, Inc. With Inside Out he explores the emotions of Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) from her first conscious thought. That brought Joy (Amy Poehler) into her life, to be followed by Fear (Bill Hadler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). They’re at the control panel of Riley’s brain as she makes memories and establishes the power islands in her mind based on core memories – the thoughts that make Riley who she is.

Riley’s life is turned upside down when her father (Kyle MacLachlan) moves the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her mom (Diane Lane) asks Riley to be supportive, but it’s an emotionally unstable time for her, especially when a conflict leads to Joy and Sadness being sucked out of the control center and dumped in long-term memory, along with Riley’s core memories.

The visuals of the film are wonderful: there’s an actual train of thought, the subconscious is down a pit below the memory, and long-term memory is a maze that’s hard to navigate. Joy and Sadness end up passing through Irrational Thought, Imagination Land, and Dream Productions. They also meet Riley’s imaginary friend from her childhood, Bing Bong (Richard Kind) who seeks to help them in their quest to return to the control center. But while they’re seeking to return, Riley’s emotions are seriously out of balance and her core-memory worlds begin to crumble.

octer collaborated on the story with first-time co-director Ronnie Del Carmen along with two others for the script, and both Amy Poehler and Bill Hadler receive credit for additional dialogue they provided. The movie sparkles with wit, such as when Anger discovers the local pizza place only serves pies topped with broccoli: “Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza. First the Hawaiians, and now you!” In a scene at the dinner table, we also get a quick trip into the control centers of Mom and Dad, to which any parent will relate. Yet the script also deals with deeper emotions and like most Pixar films you’ll want to make sure to have a tissue or two – or a dozen – close at hand.

Each actor does stellar work with the voices. Docter and Del Carmen do a wonderful job keeping everything in balance and the story moving along for its brisk 94 minute running time. (I’ll single out Richard Kind’s work as Bing Bong, but for spoiler’s sake I won’t say why.)

It’s true that in the political realm, a cartoonist is often able to cut through hyperbole and state hard truths. The same goes for animated films. While children and parents will be entranced by the visuals and the wit of the script, Inside Out can be a devastating movie for those who have regrets, both as children and as parents. Yet it also holds out the hope of reconciliation and restoration. That’s a good lesson for children to learn, be they eight years old or eighty.

James Horner: An Appreciation

I was deeply saddened to learn that James Horner had died in a plane crash near Santa Barbara, California. The two-time Oscar winner wrote some of the most evocative theme music for movies in the past thirty years. He was a composer whose work not only enhanced films but became an integral part of the complete movie experience. It’s hard to imagine Glory or Braveheart or Field of Dreams without his score flowing beneath the action, and you have to wonder if Titanic would have become the mammoth hit it did without his score.

James Horner

Horner was born in Los Angeles in 1953. He began studying the piano at age 5 and pursued music at the Royal College of Music in London as well as at USC (where he got his bachelor’s in music) and UCLA (where he got his master’s). He taught music theory at UCLA and later completed his doctorate in Composition and Theory.

In the 1970s Horner moved from academia to films. Like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and others, Horner’s first work was under the auspices of producer Roger Corman. Among other Corman movies he did the score for The Lady in Red, a retelling of the John Dillinger story that was written and directed by a young John Sayles.

Horner’s major break was when he did Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, following Jerry Goldsmith who’d scored the first movie. He would do that one more time when he did Aliens, his first collaboration with James Cameron. His string-heavy theme for Khan built on the original theme while creating a unique sound that was stirring and thrilling. Horner also made his only appeared on-screen in the film as an uncredited Enterprise crewman. To listen to the theme, please click here. For good measure, Horner also scored Search For Spock two years later.

The 1980s were a good decade for Horner where he scored several successful and respected films, two qualities that don’t necessarily describe the same movie. He did the box office successes 48 Hrs., Cocoon, An American Tail. Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and The Land Before Time. For respected, he did Testament, In Country, and The Journey of Natty Gann. But at the end of the decade he did two classics: Field of Dreams and Glory.

The soundtrack for Field of Dreams is quirky and restrained, such as the piano theme when Ray finds himself stepping back in time to meet Doc “Moonlight” Graham. It’s a perfect match for the mysticism of the movie. Yet at the end the story is resolved in the richly romantic strings that accompany Ray’s reconciliation with his father.

Glory brought Horner his first Golden Globe nomination for best score. (He’d been nominated for best song a couple years earlier for “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail.) The theme is definitely martial music but with a strong dose of wistfulness and even melancholy at the tragic bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. For the piece “A Call to Arms” Horner blended choir voices singing the theme to give it a truly ethereal feel at first, then ends it with a counterpoint of chimes and trumpets that communicate the confusion of battle. To listen to “A Call To Arms,” click here.

In the early 1990s Horner worked on a wide variety of films, from the off-beat comedy I Love You To Death to the nostalgic action of The Rocketeer. The theme he created for that film was one of his best; click here and see if you don’t agree. Horner also did high budget action flicks with a literary base, such as Patriot Games and The Pelican Brief, but he could also create the dark yet playful theme for Sneakers.

Beginning in 1994, he scored a string of prestigious and well-loved films, beginning with Legends of the Fall. The next year he did Braveheart, having first worked with Mel Gibson two years earlier on The Man Without A Face. While some were upset that he used Uilleann pipes rather than actual bagpipes, you can’t argue with the result, such as in “A Gift of Thistle.”  In comparison to the script which made Braveheart one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made, the use of the different pipes is minor.

That same year Horner also scored Apollo 13, supporting the action with a heroic score. He followed that with a couple smaller films that are beloved by those who know them such as Jumanji, Courage Under Fire, and a personal favorite, The Spitfire Grill. But it was the next year, 1997, when Horner created the intensely romantic and emotional score for one of the most successful movies ever – Titanic.

Titanic was not supposed to be a success. It had made news for a year with its cost overruns and maniacal filming schedule. One crewmember had died after falling asleep at the wheel while driving after an extended shooting day. Many expected Titanic to join the historic failures that destroyed careers, films like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate. But then the movie was released and it became a cultural phenomenon. While most movies will spend one week atop the box office, Titanic spent four months. If you want to stump a person with a movie quiz question, ask them which movie finally knocked Titanic out of the top spot. (Answer: Lost In Space).

Like the film, the soundtrack became the highest selling primarily orchestral recording ever, moving over thirty million units worldwide. Horner had been paid in the high six figures for the score, but his royalties from the CDs went into the eight figures. Celine Dion’s recording of “My Heart Will Go On” held a lock on the top spot of the charts, including 10 weeks on the top of the airplay chart. The soundtrack recording was number one on the album charts for 16 weeks, beating releases from Madonna and Shania Twain. There was an inevitable backlash against its success so some now count “Heart” as one of the worse songs ever. But the theme still works, and listening to a piece such as the “Finale” brings back the best elements of the film. 12 years later, Horner reunited with Cameron  for Avatar, another film that broke a billion dollars at the box office.

After Titanic Horner continued to bring his talent to films. He reunited with Apollo 13 director Ron Howard to score How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Missing, and A Beautiful Mind. His score added poignancy to the tragic story of the Andrea Gail in A Perfect Storm. Other movies he composed for include The Mask of Zorro, Enemy at the Gates, Troy, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The House of Sand and Fog. His final score will be heard in November with the release of The 33, the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped by a mine collapse but finally rescued after 69 days.

Horner would have reunited with James Cameron for the planned Avatar sequels, but now someone else will have to pluck our heart strings for those movies. Horner has left a body of work that ensures his position as one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Read a Short Story for Free

Those of you who have read the “About Me” section of this blog know that I am a mystery writer with several publishing credits. Normally you have to buy a magazine to read a piece I’ve written, but now you can read one for free. I’ve published a short story titled “The Extra Postage” on Inkitt as part of a contest they’re having entitled Fated Paradox. If you’d like to read it, please click here. I hope you enjoy it.

Wondering About It

I first saw Jurassic Park seated between my wife and 10-year-old son shortly after it was released in 1993. They each grabbed hold of my hand during scary scenes and held them so tightly it hurt. But along with the scares, Jurassic Park also filled the audience with wonder. It was the first movie to use extensive CGI effects created by the geniuses at ILM. (It was also the first movie to “paint” the face of an actor onto another body, for the scene where Ariana Richards is dangling from ductwork with a raptor below her; a stuntwoman did the actual hanging.) The first sequel ignored the wonder factor for a more straight-forward action flick, and the less said about the third movie the better. The good news is that Jurassic World rekindles the wonder while keeping the excitement level high.

The script throws away the previous sequels. Two decades after John Hammond’s original park failed, an entrepreneur (and 6th richest man in the world) to whom Hammond had given the rights for his work has brought the idea to fruition. Jurassic World has been operating safely for several years under the guidance of park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). There are references to the original park, with a John Hammond Imagination exhibit, the original park doors now used as a ceremonial entrance for the visitor monorail from the shore, and even a cameo by Mr. DNA. On the other hand, one of the technicians in the control room is wearing a “vintage” Jurassic Park t-shirt, to which Claire says, “Don’t you think that’s in bad taste?” The movie also gives a poke at how amusement parks are a corporate business, with Verizon sponsoring a dinosaur and the main street of the park featuring a Pandora Jewelry store and a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville restaurant.

Our introduction to Jurassic World comes through the eyes of 16-year-old Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) and his younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins). They’re sent there by their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) to spend the Christmas vacation with their aunt Claire. The tightly-wound Claire is preparing for the opening of a new exhibit featuring a genetically-modified dinosaur they call Indominous Rex, and she passes off showing the kids around the park to her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath), whom the boys soon ditch. The park’s owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan, who played the adult Pi in Life of Pi) has concerns about the new exhibit and wants velociraptor expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to consult on the containment of the new beast. Grady is having his own problems with InGen, Hammond’s old company that engineered the dinosaurs and is now owned by Masrani. The company’s head of security, Hoskins (Vincent D’Orofrio), wants to weaponized the raptors. But then they discover that InGen’s R&D department (presided over by BD Wong in another nod at the first movie) has secretly bred an alpha predator extraordinaire.

Producer Frank Marshall and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg brought in Colin Trevorrow as director and co-writer for the movie. He’d only made one previous feature film, the indy time-travel themed film Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Jurassic World had been in development hell for a decade – production was originally announced in 2004 – but with the addition of Trevorrow and the casting of Pratt (who was actually picked before last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy made him a hot action hero) as well as Howard, the production got moving. Trevorrow manages an impressive balancing act to blend the CGI action with well-defined characters. He also builds the action at a good pace until the satisfying final confrontation that’s on par with the original movie’s finale.

Pratt shows that Guardians wasn’t a fluke. He is one of the very few actors today that would make me interested in seeing a reboot of Indiana Jones. Another wise casting choice was Howard. Her performance as Claire both balances and at times mirrors Pratt’s, and they have a good chemistry together. Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson are excellent as Zach and Gray. There’s none of the annoying nature of Hammond’s grandkids in Jurassic Park, and the writers have given them resourcefulness and smarts that they embody believably. D’Orofrio is wonderfully effective as the human villain of the piece.

The first movie was a watershed moment in film history that changed the way films have been made ever since. It has also held up so it’s just as effective today when someone sees it for the first time as it was in 1993. With Jurassic World, you have a worthy successor to the first film, one that delivers the thrills, but also captures the wonder of it all. That is a major accomplishment.

A#

It use to be a given that a sequel would be inferior to the original movie. It was simply a way to cash in a second time on the original’s success. Then Francis Ford Coppola did The Godfather Part 2 and a few years later George Lucas released The Empire Strikes Back. Since then, sequels have at least been higher in quality and some have eclipsed the original – most recently The Dark Knight. But there is still a quiver of fear when you slip into your chair at the theater that you’ll walk out disappointed.

I’d delayed seeing Pitch Perfect 2 for that reason. The original was a surprising success that blended outrageous comedy with a classic underdog story, with top-flight a cappella music thrown in for good measure. It was worth watching the movie on demand or on DVD with the captions on just to catch all the throw-away lines that Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) whispered, such as “I ate my twin in the womb.” Not your usual movie dialogue. Finally I screwed up my courage and went to see 2, and I’m glad I did.

The movie starts three years after the original. The Barden Bellas have ruled the a cappella universe throughout that time, three-peating as national champions. Now Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), and the rest are seniors and plan to finish their college years in the same fashion. Chloe (Brittany Snow) has flunked Russian literature for three years just to stay a Bella. But then a wardrobe malfunction during a national event gets them banned from competition in the US and unable to recruit new Bellas. They find one possible way to redemption: win the World A Cappella championships.

There’s added motivation when the tour they had planned to make is given to the past World champions, Das Sound Machine, a Teutonic group fronted by blond superwoman Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorenson). In addition, Beca has scored an internship with a music producer (played by Keegan-Michael Key) that might be her ticket to becoming a producer herself. Stepping into the group is Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of legendary Bella Catherine Junk (Katey Sagal). As a legacy, she can join despite the dean’s prohibition against recruiting. But can the Bellas find their mojo again and triumph on the world stage?

Almost all the characters from the original movie are back, including Jesse (Skylar Austin) and Benji (Ben Platt) from the Treblemakers. Bumper (Adam DeVine) has returned from his time with John Mayer and has fallen to the point of working for campus security and singing with the Tone Hangers, the quartet who’d caused the melee midway through the first movie. And of course there’s the national commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins saying the most inappropriate things with the biggest of smiles.

The movie has upped the ante on most fronts. It doesn’t have the balance for all the characters that the original did. Instead most of the focus is on Beca, Fat Amy, and Emily. It’s a wise choice that gives the movie more focus, though the others do have their moments. A new member of the Bellas, Flo (Chrissie Fit), gives a fresh infusion of outrageousness, and there’s plenty of surprises, such as an a capella group formed by members of a certain pro sports team. The featured song for the Bellas this time, “Flashlight,” was written by award-winning artists Sam Smith and Sia, among others.

It all works as well if not better than the original. Much credit must be given to Elizabeth Banks. She’s had a successful if not stellar career as an actress; her most notable role is Effie in The Hunger Games series, but in the past 15 years she’s garnered 70 movie and TV credits. She’d branched out with the first Pitch Perfect when she produced the movie as well as played her role. This time she also takes over as director and she does it with polish and panache.

If you haven’t seen the original, get on Netflix and watch it, then get out to a theater to see Pitch Perfect 2. Your funny bone will thank you.

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On

Years ago I attended a showing of one of the first films in the disaster genre, 1936’s San Francisco, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The movie was written by Anita Loos and grafted a typical Hollywood story onto the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Clark Gable played a slightly disreputable but heroic saloon owner on the Barbary Coast, Jeanette McDonald was the singer he loved, and Spencer Tracy played (as he did several times) Gable’s best friend, a priest. While the story was hackneyed, the special effects were excellent for that time, and would even hold up against the 1974 all-star extravaganza Earthquake, which wiped out Los Angeles. With digital effects, so much more can be done these days, and the makers of San Andreas not only take out both cities in one movie but much of the state and the Hoover Dam for good measure.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays LAFD Search and Rescue pilot Ray Gaines. We’re introduced to him when a young woman driving in the canyon country north of the San Fernando Valley has an accident that leaves her dangling over a cliff. While Gaines is the chopper pilot, he ends up swinging into action when one of his team gets hung up while trying to get to the girl.

Gaines is estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) following the death of their youngest daughter. Their surviving teenaged daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to start college in San Francisco and Gaines makes plans to drive her north. The day before they’re to leave he finds that Emma’s sued for divorce and she and Blake have moved in with her boyfriend, multi-millionaire developer Daniel Riddick (Ioan Griffudd).

 

At CalTech, Seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and a colleague are developing an early warning system for earthquakes. When they find a cluster of readings and tiny quakes centered on an unknown fault beneath the Hoover Dam, they set out to field-test their ideas, but while there a major quake strikes and the dam fails. The next day back at CalTech, Hayes is being interviewed by TV reporter Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi from “The Good Wife”) when his system warns him that the San Andreas fault is about to break loose and hit LA with a monster quake.

Take it as a given that this is not a documentary. The level of destruction is far greater than what could be generated if the San Andreas did move, and construction in California plans for big earthquakes. Also, the San Andreas would move laterally, so you wouldn’t get a huge chasm along it – though the road you’re traveling on may suddenly move eight or ten feet to the side. What the movie does get right is that one earthquake can cause a series of quakes, and the actions of Johnson and Giamatti during the succeeding quakes are the right things to do. The San Andreas wouldn’t cause a tsunami – again, it doesn’t move in a way that cause those waves – but the signs of one are correctly depicted.

Director Brad Peyton had only done two features before this, though they both had extensive special effects. He does an excellent job with keeping the action flowing. It helps, too, that the script is a cut better than what you normally get in a disaster movie in that it focuses on real emotions and gives most of the characters enough intelligence for a fighting chance at survival. Credit for that goes to screenwriter Carlton Cuze, who was a writer and producer on “Lost” and currently does the same for “Bates Motel” on the A&E network.

Johnson has become a more than decent actor over the years, and while his physical prowess is on display in the movie, he’s just as strong handling the emotional element. Gugino matches him in both aspects, and her telephone message to Riddick midway through the movie is both priceless and perfect. Gruffudd’s role is a disappointment as it is a one-dimensional stereotype. You also have Kylie Minogue in a cameo role as Riddick’s sister that pretty much wastes her. But that’s more than made up for by Alexandra Daddario’s Blake. It’s nice to see a young female portrayed with brains and courage.

This isn’t a movie that will contend at the Oscars, apart from the technical categories. But if you want an action/adventure movie that’s truly thrilling, San Andreas is worth it.