Thursday, June 7, 2018

Reflections on Dead Home-Entertainment Technology

By Steve Evans

On this day in 1975 Sony introduced the Betamax 9300, a "video recorder" almost the size of a footlocker and priced at $2,295 (about $11,000 in 2018 dollars). It had fat piano keys for controls and a crude LCD numeric screen. Made a fair amount of whirring noise, too. With the release of this brute of a component, Sony began the era of the home theater concept and forever changed the way people consume programming, since they were no longer at the mercy of broadcasters' schedules. That is, if you could figure out how to program the machine and set the timer to record the correct channel.

In less than a decade Betamax would be extinct after losing the videotape format war to VHS cassettes, which delivered noticeably lower image quality but were cheaper. We had a top-loading Betamax that ended up in basement storage when VHS took over and it was no longer possible to buy the smaller Betamax cassettes. I remember the owner of a local video rental store saying how happy he was when Betamax died because he no longer had to buy two copies of the same movie on different videotape formats. Blockbuster arrived a couple years later and he went out of business, anyway.

My first movie from that rental store was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) on a Betamax cassette. I had never seen the film, much less uncut, as there is no way any network back then would have shown that legendarily violent film as released theatrically. As a fledgling 14-year-old film buff, being able to rent and watch a movie on demand was a revelation (nor did the rental shop owner give a damn about whether I was old enough to be watching R-rated movies). Soon, most of my allowance money was going to movie rentals at the video store down the street. All of them were beat up and scratchy, even the new releases after only a couple of weeks, but I didn't care. In a town with only two single-screen movie theaters and cable TV service still a few years off, having a video rental store was like a passport to exotic lands of adventure.  

I'd bet that mom still has that Betamax monster socked away somewhere in her basement -- and it probably still works -- only there's no way to hook up the equipment to a modern TV because RCA jacks, and the red, yellow and white cables to connect them, are likewise a thing of the past.

Nothing lasts forever, except my ridiculous habit of renting and then buying films like The Wild Bunch on video cassette (twice), DVD and, more recently, on Blu-ray. If Peckinpah's bloody classic is ever released in the 4K format, I’ll buy that one, too. Obsessions always start somewhere. I have Betamax to thank for mine.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Today in History: Bonnie, Donnie and Clyde

By Steve Evans

Let's play a game of perception v. reality.

On this day in 1934 the murderous bank robbing duo Bonnie and Clyde were machine-gunned to death in an ambush set by a posse of Louisiana and Texas law enforcement.

Arthur Penn's celebrated 1967 film that bears their names did no favors for the historical record, although accuracy was not Penn's intent. Though possessed of low cunning, the real Bonnie and Clyde could best be characterized as moronic and sleazy -- quite a departure from their charming cinematic counterparts Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

Penn's film treats the pair as folk heroes and they were embraced as such by audiences watching the film at the height of the counterculture. The paradox here is that despite the picture's many liberties with historical accuracy, Bonnie and Clyde in their heyday were indeed heroes to many victims of the Great Depression, people who were angry at the system, at the banks Bonnie and her beau enjoyed robbing.

I could draw parallels here to Trump supporters, those disaffected yahoos who root for a rebel as balm (or distraction) for their own problems. There's no doubt in my mind that the rise of Trump coming on the heels of the Great Recession is no mere coincidence. His ascension is a maneuver of pure exploitation as clever as any Hollywood rendering of historical record.

Make no mistake: Bonnie and Clyde were only out for themselves. Trump is no different, as evidenced by each new day. He's just a little more polished than Clyde, a bit more slick.

As it happened, the frivolity came to an end for Miss Bonnie and her Clyde on May 23, 1934. Penn's film, in a daring-for-its-day climax, also brings harsh reality crashing down on the antiheroes of his long frolic of a film. It's a classic example of yanking the rug out from under an audience, forcing viewers to confront, finally, the nasty truth of the characters they've been rooting for and maybe don't even understand why.

Wondering if the Donnie Trump Story can deliver a conclusion at least as exciting.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Perils of Fortune and Glory

By Steve Evans

We are giddy with the acquisition of The Man Who Would be King (1975) in hi-def. A magnificent entertainment from the twilight of director John Huston's mighty career. Michael Caine and Sean Connery have made many enduring classics through more than six decades of working in cinema. The Man Who Would be King is equal to all of them and better than most.
Huston in the 1950s wanted Bogart and Clark Gable for the leads, though sadly, Bogart died of cancer before the project could get off the ground. A decade later, Huston dusted off his script, adapted from Kipling, and went after Paul Newman and Robert Redford for his stars. Newman told him, "John, much as I'd love to do this, you want Connery and Caine for this one." Newman was spot-on. 

Here is a perfect union of casting and material in a glorious adventure film that explores recurring themes in Huston's work: greed, machismo, obsession. You can see this in The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Moby Dick, but Huston took these themes to their logical, epic conclusion in this tale of two 19th century British soldiers, rogues really, who set out for the mythical land of Kafiristan in search of fortune and glory. Inevitably, dark clouds of fate follow arrogant kings with a god complex. 

Makes a terrific double-feature with Gunga Din (1939), another Kipling tale that Hollywood got right. Trivia: the Kafiristani woman Connery falls in love with was played by Shakira Baksh, also known as Mrs. Michael Caine, who married her two years before this film was made after declaring Shakira the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their union endures to this day.
Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Handicapping This Year's Best Picture Oscar Nominees

By Steve Evans

Out of nine Best Picture nominees this year, The Shape of Water is favored to win tomorrow night. It’s lavishly produced, weird and strangely compelling in its love story.

Because the Academy has been quirky of late, I’ll say Shape will indeed win.

Here’s my annual effort to break down the contenders and handicap the race. Let me be clear. These thoughts have less to do with artistic merit than with Oscar politics, past trends and an intuitive sense of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses Oscar winners for maximum

Jordan Peele's Get Out, a thriller with horror and science fiction elements, was probably the most profitable film of the year with a $252 million-plus worldwide gross against a $4.5 million budget. It's scary and funny, and the makers of the film pushed hard after the fact to play up the picture as a racial allegory, instead of just leaving it as a black comedy, yeah, pun intended. Instead, the film comes off as a reverse-racist polemic to some viewers. Controversy might be good for box office, though seldom for Academy Awards. And despite the ignorance of film critics hailing Get Out for originality, the picture is highly derivative of films like The Clonus Horror, Coma and The Island. Get Out and freshman director Peele will have to settle for the honor of nominations only. He now has the clout to make plenty more films and establish a track record that could lead to an eventual win.

Dunkirk and Darkest Hour – both stories of Brits during World War II – will cancel each other out.

Call Me by Your Name is handicapped by the fact that a film about gay boys won Best Picture last year, and Hollywood is not inclined to overdo it.

Lady Bird is a sweet little comedy-drama about a gal’s coming of age in the shadow of a difficult mother. But that’s it. The film just…ends. Not nearly enough gravitas for a Best Picture win.

The Post and Phantom Thread are both prestige productions directed by and starring some of the top talent working today. Problem is, neither found a wide audience. The Post is overwrought with odd character quirks, which are distracting, and a focus on so much inside baseball about newspaper operations that the greater issue at stake is obscured. Scotch that one. Phantom is reputed to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting swansong – and he may just pull an upset for Best Actor over Gary Oldman, but in the age of #MeToo the film’s tale of toxic masculinity is not going to sit well with Academy voters ever conscious of appearances.

That leaves Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  Any other year, this would be the runaway favorite. It’s got bleeding-edge social issues, powerhouse acting and delivers an unflinching look at rural America. But. As some critics have observed, this is also a black comedy directed by a Brit, taking some easy potshots at America’s rural South. My point is, the tone of the film is off, never quite believable, though the actors try mightily to sell the story. In sum, it’s flawed.

So we’re left with The Shape of Water, the strange story of a mute woman in love with an aquatic lizard man who escapes his government captors. This is what you get when you cross The Fugitive with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only this time the gal is not screaming and has even brought her own condoms. I made up that last part. On balance, this is high fantasy, beautifully produced and powerfully romantic, plus it delivers a unique twist on some familiar cinematic tropes. All of this is a semi-fancy way of saying The Shape of Water is a novelty of pure escapism that puts a balm on the frayed nerves of modern moviegoers living in a surreal world of their own with Trump, Kim Jong, et. al. doing crazy things most every day.  Count on The Shape of Water to win.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.