Thursday, August 25, 2011

In the Land Before CGI: The Hurricane

Since I've long wanted to include John Ford's The Hurricane on an edition of In the Land Before CGI, I figured what better time than with Hurricane Irene making her way up the coast. Made in 1937 and playing as an island soap opera, it's not as well regarded by Ford fans as many of his other films but that has more to do with the fact that so many of his other films are masterpieces (Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, etc) than with The Hurricane's quality. Oh, it's nothing great on the story side of things, to be sure, but Ford handles soap opera pretty damn well for a man who was so associated with the more macho side of cinema.

And let's lay something else on the table: When you watch a movie called The Hurricane, you're watching to see the hurricane. I mean, seriously, let's be honest here, that's the primary objective.

And, wow, does Ford deliver!

With both miniature and full scale effects by James Basevi, effects photography by R.O. Binger and sound recording by Jack Noyes and Thomas Moulton, the climactic hurricane is a wonder to behold. I've assembled only a couple of minutes of the much longer hurricane sequence, omitting most character action and just focusing on the effects, shown in order as the island goes from wave battered to, finally, underwater. Enjoy the clips.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom Waits: Glitter and Doom Live

Tom Waits' Glitter and Doom Tour was a special event for any fan of Tom Waits and his unique blend of music, vaudeville and Will Rogers routines. It's not like Waits hits the tour trail every year, or even every time he releases an album, so fans were justifiably excited. For those who didn't get the chance to catch the tour, Glitter and Doom Live feels like a good representation of a live Waits show (although, having not seen one of the live shows of the tour myself, I can't be sure) with one exception: The storytelling. More on that in a second.

Back in 1983, with Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits became the Tom Waits we know today. While he had always been a masterful songwriter, Swordfishtrombones found Waits throwing traditional arrangements out the window in favor of using found instruments while making new ones out of junk and settling in to his now familiar husky growl of a voice. It's that voice that now dominates Waits' songs and on Glitter and Doom, he once again finds a way to make that barbarian yawp an effective conveyor of sentimentality, without getting all mushy. Still, his voice has gotten so gruff that one wonders if songs like Town with No Cheer or Soldier's Things are left off the live set because the voice is no longer gentle enough to make them work. Possibly, but as the inclusion of songs like The Part You Throw Away work beautifully with all the gruffness intact (and simply wonderful guitar work by Omar Torez) it leaves the question open. In fact, all the songs work, to one degree or another. What's missing are the stories.

Tom Waits often speaks story songs in rhythmic cadences, giving something like Frank's Place a beat poetry reading feel rather than a spoken song feel. However, songs like Frank's Place are oddly lacking and except for one "story" (more of a joke, it's a tale of buying Henry Ford's dying breath on e-bay) no storytelling makes it to the music section of this two-CD set. The solution to this lack of storytelling or spoken story songs, the producers of this CD seem to believe, is to include a second CD of nothing but Waits talking to the audience.

That actually sounds pretty great and I was excited for this part of the live album most of all. Problem is, there are no stories. No recounting of hilarious episodes from his life or tall-tales from the road. It's all random one-liners and animal jokes. His delivery's fine ("There's a law in Oklahoma says you can't eat in a place that's also on fire. [pause] That really limited our options.") but there's nothing at the end of it but punchlines. No "tale" is more than a few seconds of set-up followed by punchline and after 35 minutes, brother, that can get wearying.

Yes, thirty-five minutes of jokes. Think about that. Think about a stand-up routine and how they work. If you watch a Louis CK performance you'll notice that the "jokes" are really just riffs on developing stories over the course of the concert. A theme is developed and played off of for an ample duration before transitioning to the next. That's not what happens here. In fact, it can't happen here as the talking segments are stitched together from various stops on the tour, which is why they have no flow. And so you get that Oklahoma joke. Immediately following you get a joke about vultures. Then you get a joke about cars. Then you get a joke about antiques. And on it goes, for thirty-five minutes. It's like when you were a kid and a friend got a joke book and decided it would be so great to constantly read you jokes from it and you thought, "This sucks, can we just talk about something." The right idea would have been to take jokes and stories and songs and mix them all together.

Glitter and Doom Live is probably a decent representation of a live show by Waits but, I suspect, not nearly as good as it could've been. More variety from his vast catalogue, more stories and more cohesion would've helped this venture a lot. Too bad, because Tom Waits remains one of the most unique and talented songwriter/storytellers modern music has yet produced and it's because of that talent that I can still recommend this, barely, despite the flaws.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rise of the CGI

By all accounts, Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks to be a very good movie. I've heard nothing but good and the critical consensus itself seems to be the movie is above average for a sci-fi thriller. I'm also a Planet of the Apes (POTA) fanatic so I know for a fact I'll be seeing this. And yet, why does it bother me so much that they went all CGI instead of using makeup? I never cared for the Tim Burton version but the makeup was superb. And if you're going to go to all this trouble...

... why not just put the damn actors in make-up?

I've read takes on the film praising the amazing quality of the CGI and yet, when I look at stills, trailers and hi-def clips from the movie, it looks to me, yet again, as fake as fake can be. Why? Why do others see great looking creations while I see elaborate cut-scenes from video games?

I don't know the answer to that, maybe I never will. Maybe I just hate the fact that the loss of great make-up artistry is a loss of great artists whose work took until 1981 to be recognized by the Academy and now, barely thirty years later, it's already disappearing.

Friday, August 5, 2011

This Shit Just Ain't Working

I thought of coming up with a clever title for this post or, at least, a more dignified one. Maybe something from Shakespeare. "Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange," from The Tempest, perhaps. I've used that before so it felt safe and familiar. Then I thought, "Nah, just tell it like it is," and here's how it is: This shit just ain't working anymore.

I write here, at Cinema Styles, and at Turner Classic Movies. I post pictures at If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats and my tumblr site, Unexplained Cinema. And with TCM I write not only my Wednesday post but program articles for the site as well. And now I realize, after five weeks of doing this, I've got to cut some things loose and those things are pretty much everything except TCM. I don't have the time I used to have to browse photo archives searching for exceptional photos that caught my interest. I used to. I don't anymore. And I don't have time to develop separate ideas into fully realized posts at two different blogs. I just don't. It was foolish of me to think otherwise.

My first instinct is to abandon Cinema Styles altogether. There is an out, however. At TCM, we're generally supposed to keep things to pre-1990. It's not there for us to write up new movies and it's really not there for television or music. So while I have neither the time nor the inclination to approach the history of film from two angles, at two different sites, I can do reviews here and my more familiar overview essays there (at TCM).

It is those overview essays (that's what I call them) that have always been my favorite to write because they come from inspiration whereas reviews come from a need to organize one's thoughts on a recently seen movie. I don't dislike doing that, it's just not my first choice. Recently, however, I put together an overview of trilogies here and an overview of "classic" cinema there and the reader results couldn't have been more striking. I think it's time to simplify Cinema Styles if I'm to keep it going at all.

I hate to make this change fully, since I began Cinema Styles as a purely classic cinema blog in 2007 (I once did posts on the Oscars, now deleted, where I refused to go past 1979) and it was that status as a classic cinema blog that, frankly, brought in a large audience that didn't care to read about the latest cinematic offerings everywhere else, but the fact is, this blog hasn't been exclusively classic cinema for a very long time now, anyway. What better time to toss off the traces and go full-fledged review oriented than now?

Of course, I don't see new movies that often, so by new I probably mean something that came out three months ago or last year even. And I'll review more music, something I enjoy but lost track of months ago. I thought I might have time to join in Ed Howard's music club but I haven't (but if you want to, follow that link!). And television, another thing I started on a while ago that fell off the blogging map. Also, I'll probably move my series, The Land Before CGI, over to TCM as, again, it fits with the classic theme there.

And that's about it. Not much more to say right now except I hope you'll follow me over at TCM and keep up here as well for discussions of newer cinema as well as music and television. I can't guarantee I'll write much more than a post a week, or when I'll even start doing that, but when I do I'll try to make it at least marginally interesting. I hope I succeed.

Thanks for reading.