Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parker by Any Other Name

Parker is a fictional character who keeps appearing in popular culture under different names. Originally he was created by author Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark. That's the first clue to the nature of the character: he is stark in personality and motivations.

The first book in a long series was The Hunter. This a bare bones revenge story. Parker is betrayed by his partner and wife right after pulling a very profitable heist. The story is so compelling it was made in to a major motion picture three times.

First by John Boorman in 1967 as Point Blank. Other outstanding films by Boorman are Deliverance and Excalibur. Lee Marvin is suburb and really can say a lot without saying a word. For some reason, Parker was renamed Walker in the film.

A Hong Kong rip off by Ringo Lam called Full Contact starring Chow Yun-Fat came out in 1992. It doesn't claim to be based on the novel but the screenwriter obviously plundered Point Blank for this movie. There is no doubt that the main character is Parker even though he is called Gou Fei.

Lastly, it was remade in 1999 as Payback. Mel Gibson took the Parker part and generally growled an imitation of Lee Marvin. The producers tried very hard to give this a '70s look and feel and succeeded for the most part. In this film, Parker character is named Porter. The studio was originally unhappy with the first cut of this movie and hired a new director to rewrite and re shoot about 30% of it for a lighter, comedic tone featuring a particularly mean spirited Gibson. Only his star power at the time prevented this from being a really bad idea.

By far the best adaption is the Lee Marvin version. It plays a little dated now but keep in mind that California was a very interesting place to be in the '60s.

The Parker character proved to be rather popular and inspired a further twenty-three novels. They are somewhat in sequence in that characters may be introduced in one novel and continue for a few books. Sometimes they exit nicely, sometimes they don't. The Parker novels were written over a period of forty-five years and have been re-issued several times.

Their popularity has spawned graphic novel versions of the first two books in the series. They are amazing even for the people who have read the originals.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

2001 and the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige

Recently I popped my Blu-Ray copy of 2001 for a quick review because something has been in the back of my mind for quite a while. A very long time ago I read an interview with Stanly Kubrick which discussed making film as a process of assembling scenes. The scenes are of course parts of the story. As I recall the goal was six to nine major scenes made the skeleton of movie. Additional scenes were for pacing or clarification and seldom for plot or character development.

This is the simplest explanation about the structure of 2001. A number of people believe it is an unstructured and plot less experience. I am only addressing the structure in this post and contend that it is one of the most highly structured films ever made. The movie consists of four titled segments. In reality, the fourth segment is just a continuation of the third segment. Each of the segments has three parts.

I'll borrow a term from vaudeville magic (and the wonderful film, The Prestige) and label the three parts of each segment as the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In a magician's illusion, the pledge is the presentation of the trick about to be performed. The turn is the actual performance of the trick. The prestige is the reward such as applause the magician receives.

The "Dawn of Man" segment clearly has three parts. One group of early man displacing another at the watering hole is the pledge. The displaced ones are enhanced by the arrival of the monolith in the turn. The displaced one regain the watering hole with the aid of the superior technology makes the prestige.

The discussion with the Russians about the mystery on the moon (the Pledge), the discovery of the radio signal in the monolith (the Turn) and the introduction of the Jupiter mission (the Pledge) all form the next triptych. I blurred the line between segments but that is the art of film making. It may appear that there is no immediate connection between the moon scenes and the first shot of the spaceship Discovery but one is the direct result of the sum of what was before.

The final segment is not so obvious until the end. It is technology vs humans in that tools or equals. Hal is not going to appreciate the encounter at the end so the pledge and the turn are not so simply getting rid of Hal's higher functions. The prestige is the monolith and the next level of alien anointment.

That's it. In a nutshell aliens created the intelligent life on earth and then pointed the more adventurous ones out to Jupiter to pick up the next step. The astronaut becomes the super-baby in the last scene.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Best Episode, Original "Hawaii Five-O"

There comes a time in watching and re watching older television series when it really becomes and old friend. I am one of those people who keep a TV on in the house most of the time I am at home. It's like having someone else in an otherwise quiet house.

The original Hawaii Five-O is one of the old friends I use to just play in the background while I am doing something else. I'll even do my reading with the TV on in the background. One of the characters in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" wold set the TV to an empty channel and let the white noise of static provide the backdrop for sleep.

I can't do that as my low-level mental processing keeps trying to put the static into a pattern that isn't there. Old TV programs work for me. They are familiar as they are largely formulaic. One-hour programs will have a standard four part structure that is predictable even if I haven't seen the particular episode many times before.

In that manner some episodes stand out from the average. Some Hawaii Five-O were very bad. They had a simply robbery and then McGarrett solving the case while barely moving from his desk to the map of Honolulu and back again. To fill out the show there are many shots of cars driving around the island.

Most of the episodes were not that bad but there were just average. There was one that was way above the norm for Five-O, "Over Fifty? Steal". It is not only the best episode of the series, it is far better than the series as a whole.

It is a clever script with plenty of location shots but the best part is Hume Cronyn as the Monopoly Thief. He steals money and jewels while leaving the orange Monopoly cards to taunt McGarrett to catch him.

Catch this episode to remind you how good the old Five-O was.

Original Air Date:25 November 1970

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Inception is more/less complicated than you think.

After viewing Inception quite a few times, I really do have an answer to the question I had half way through the first viewing. Right then I wondered if it was all a dream. Of course it is an opinion and others have different views.

The short answer is that it is not all a dream. Cobb does get to be with his children at the end.

I listened to the Michael Caine interview on NPR for the one line statement that his character never appeared in a dream. I read the other actor interviews who all denied the complete dream theory.

There are subtle and not so subtle clues through out the movie such as Cobb's wedding ring. He only wears the wedding ring while in a dream. It is not a continuity error as the filmmakers highlighted the ring or lack of it in each segment.

The main argument I have heard for it all being a dream is that the children never seem to age and are wearing the same clothes. This falls down as all images of the children except for the last are supposed to be Cobb's memory. He has not seen them for two years and this is stylistically represented by not showing the children's faces except in the last scene. The children/dream theory cites the children's clothes as evidence. Problem with this is that their shoes change. The final nail in this theory is that the cast list shows two children played each child part and are listed as different ages. It is a red herring: it is less than it seems.

The top: does is topple or not? It sounds like it going to topple as it has before but it really does not matter. The token does not tell the character if they are in a dream or not. Clearly stated it tells them if they are in someone else's dream. The token is to be unusual enough that the architect of the dream would not be able to anticipate the token's irregularities.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The French Get the American Gangster: Jean-Pierre Melville, part 1

In an earlier post about The Town (2010), I mentioned that the filmmakers studied parts of French Film Noir. I am going to explore that a bit in this post while praising some of the more obscure films.

A variation of the American gangster film lived for a while in France thanks to Jean-Pierre Melville and others. There were a number of great French film directors of the 1950s and '60s who were greatly influenced by American film noir. WWII interrupted the showing of American films for a while. After the war, a number of directors ate up the film noir component of the backlog of American cinema. Maybe it was the cheaply made nature of these films that was the allure. After all, deep shadows are a lot cheaper than actually dressing a set.

Melville seemed to take this a small step further.His films are each a distillation of a single theme. Two films of note are Le Doulos and Le Cercle Rouge. Although most film aficionados consider Le Cercle Rouge to be his masterpiece, I think Le Doulos to be a rougher, more ragged film and so much better because of that. Both films have a theme echoed in the recent The Town.

If one had to trim Le Doulos down to the its most central theme (and that is the point of this blog), it would be Bros-Before-Hoes or BB4H. That's it and it is fascinating how it is slowly revealed through the interweave of the story lines of the two main characters. Friendship and loyalty among men are above all.
The second film plays with a similar theme of the Buddy Film (Or BB4H variant), in that it postulates that sooner or later men of a similar nature will eventually cross into the same arena of the story (a red circle in this case). We have similar characters to The Town. Corey (Alain Delon) is the sophisticated criminal who is very close to Affleck's Doug MacRay. Le Commissaire Mattei (Bourvil) is the same policeman who thinks everybody is guilty as John Hamm's Special Agent Adam Frawley. In Le Cercle Rouge everybody else becomes either secondary or a useful tool to highlight aspects of the file. This is true to a point in The Town. The difference is that the Buddy Film overlay imparts a different angle to and complicates the plot a bit.

Monday, November 01, 2010

6k and The Ten Commandments

The other night I saw the beautifully restored version of The Ten Commandments and equally at the classic Hollywood theater, The Egyptian. This was the first public showing of the fully restored roadshow version of the 1956 film. A little talk by the VP of restoration and the Heston family.

Then the movie started and we had an enthusiastic audience applauding right from the beginning. The titles were bright and clean with colors restored as well as dirt and scratches removed. It was beautiful from start to finish. I enjoyed the movie, the cake at intermission (theater’s 88th anniversary) and the whole event in general. It was a little long but it was the 3 hour 39 minute version.

You can skip to the next paragraph but for a technical details about the 6k restoration, I put a little research into it. This was filmed in a widescreen format called VistaVision. This was Paramount’s technology for widescreen instead of CinemaScope. Anamorphic processes such as CinemaScope and Panavision squeeze the image horizontally when photographed and then expand it when projected. This puts twice as wide an image on the same size negative as before. This technology is still used today. VistaVision cameras run the film sideways and then use the area of two normal frames for one frame. This gives only a slight widescreen but tremendous detail compared to the anamorphic process. Eventually the VistaVision source is turned and squeezed for the final print shown in theaters. Only a little over 30 movies were made in VistaVision as better film stock made it obsolete. The version I saw was scanned from the original VistaVision sources and digitally projected. The 6k refers to the horizontal number of pixels on the image as normally shown. A normal DVD would be a 2k scan (2048×1536 pixels) and HD and most modern motion picture production scan at 4k (4096×3072 pixels). A 6k VistaVision scan is two 4k scans turned sideways ( 6144×4096 pixels). Kinda an oversimplification but basically true.

In viewing this movie, a few things became clear to me. Yul Brenner and others in this movie could barely act. Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson could deliver their lines with believability and conviction. Both of these are obvious because of the somewhat dated and stilted dialog. Certainly there was a different method in screen acting 55 years ago. But even factoring in that and the heavy direction, it becomes pretty clear who were the great film actors and who were mediocre at best. It is even possible to differentiate the primarily film actors from classically trained theatrical actors.

An enjoyable experience. Probably going to be a Blu-Ray release soon.

Are we all asleep in Inception?

It has been a few months since I saw Inception. I was so excited about it that I skipped an afternoon at Waikiki to catch it the day it opened. Recently I had a discussion about whether or not the main character, Cobb, was just dreaming the whole thing.

Initially I thought no, then yes and now it varies from day-to-day. I think this needs a little research and I will provide that in a post very soon. I may even need to re-read Ubik by Philip K. Dick. It reminds me of that SF novel from the late ’60s and may actually be the genesis of Inception.

Yeah, I don’t expect that you know of Philip K. Dick and probably think I am just playing with my own name. Nope. Real author (1928-1982). You probably saw a few of the movies made from his novels: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Imposter, Paycheck, Scanner Darkly and Next (Curse you, Nicolas Cage!) Now I can’t get him out of my head and I’ll have to write a piece about how Nicholas Cage is the worst living actor.