Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What happened to opening credits?

There seems to be a lack of opening credits in modern movies these days. I can't remember the last new movie I saw that actually had a main title theme and credits. Now, given that you can count the number of new movies I've seen in the theater on one hand, I'm probably making too broad of a generalization, but there's been a noticeable trend over the last few years, even to me, for filmmakers to dive right into their movie, BAM!, without ever giving any credits beyond the title.

I hate that.

Oh sure, I understand all too well about needing to grab people's attention right away, etc., but you know, nobody's going to walk out of a movie four minutes into it because they had to sit through opening credits.

When I go to the movies, even when I pop a DVD in the machine at home, I'm coming from real life. From the stress of work, or dealing with the stupid drivers on the road, or the monotony of household chores, or an argument with friends, or a gigglefest with friends... it doesn't matter whether it's stress or cheer, I've got real life on the brain. I go to/put on a movie to get away from them. And you know? Opening credits are the transition point. The theater darkens, the music starts, the credits roll. The flavor of the music sets the tone, tells me what I'm in for. I loosen my grip on the outside world, let the score and the credits relax me... so that when the movie starts, I'm there. Ready to go. Movies that tend to jump right in? I'm doing that transition during the movie's opening. I have to discard my distractions as the movie starts. Oh sure, I get there, but I miss opening credits.

When I think of modern (but, er... not so new) films that did it right, I think of films like The Untouchables (1987). Perfect opening credits. Stylish and atmospheric letters and shadows, with Morricone's dark but catchy title theme putting me into the right frame of mind... by the time the first scene starts, I am so there, body and soul, ready to go. Real life is forgotten, and I'm eager to see what's coming. Or Dead Again (1991). Or James Bond films, that give you a teaser, but also a nice set of opening credits.

That's what I miss in movies that choose to toss you off a cliff instead of letting you enjoy the view a moment, before giving you that hard shove.

I always stay through the end credits of every film for the similar reasons. Well, for three reasons really. 1) before songs became so prevalent, end credits were a great place to listen to the composer's music again without dialog and sound effects overrunning it, 2) to give acknowledgement and salute to the makers of the film, and 3) to ease back out of fiction into real life.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Of novels and movies and opera, oh my

Work on my new novel, "The Traitor," had stalled out a few weeks back, mostly because I couldn't hear the voice of one of my lead character. I realized why yesterday. He's a she. I had the wrong gender. Now, she's not only talking to me, but large chunks of the novel rotated and fell in place. They had worked fine before, but they work better now, with the whole change in dynamics that the gender change brings. Now, I can't wait to get back to it.

My movie watching has slowed lately. Must be the back-to-school season. There seems to be a hundred things to do every day right now. But I did watch another couple of Tyrone Power films I hadn't seen before. The Black Rose and Prince of Foxes.

I've always liked Tyrone Power, though I don't have a crush on him, nor is he one of my favorite actors. But I have a great abiding affection for him. As I've been watching these films lately, I realized part of why that is.

He belongs in opera.

Seriously. Tyrone Power is everything I look for in an opera tenor, he simply lacks the singing voice. He's certainly got the dark handsome looks of an Italian tenor, particularly in some of the period films I'm watching, but more importantly, he's got the personality to play all my favorite opera tenor roles. And that's a hard one to explain in words -- spirit, a certain joy in life edged with darkness but not cynicism, bravado in the face of death and pain and despair -- but Tyrone has the necessary operatic ingredients in spades, where my favorite actors do not. Sometimes, my family has fun casting our favorite operas with movie stars from certain eras, or genres, or even from specific movies. I don't think we've actually done Golden Age stars, but if we did, I'd pick Tyrone Power for the lead in most of my favorite Puccini and Verdi operas. There wouldn't even be any contest. Tosca, Butterfly, Turandot, Girl of the Golden West, Rigoletto, Masked Ball, Traviata... he'd be absolutely perfect in a movie version of any one of them.

Tyrone Power in Prince of Foxes... could easily be the Duke of Mantua about to start singing La donna รจ mobile in that outfit

As to the two films I watched, both were entertaining, but I much preferred Prince of Foxes. The Black Rose had some good parts, but was brought down by the female lead, who is supposed to be the Black Rose, but looked about 12-years-old. She was very innocent and earnest and sort of cute in a daughterly way, but really. As a love interest? As the titular Black Rose??? Weird casting decision. However, Jack Hawkins played Tyrone's best friend, and he's much fun.

And then there's also Orson Welles. He got all the best dialogue, and he really makes up for the lameness of the rest of the movie. (Tyrone plays a Saxon, pissed at the Normans, who gets in trouble at home and splits with a caravan of goodies bound for the Far East. Ends up fighting for Orson Welle's charasmatic, but bloodthirsty Mongol warlord as one of his captains, gets imprisoned in China, then ultimately returns to England with gunpowder and other technological info... which he gives to the Normans.) Welles is also in Prince of Foxes (part of why I chose these two films), and has quite a bit of the best dialogue there too. Orson Welles is a compelling actor to watch at any time, but he makes these very intelligent, but decadent and conscienceless characters, quite fascinating. What better actor to pick to play Cesare Borgia in Prince of Foxes?

"I was thinking." - Don Estaban
"Good. Practice makes perfect." - Cesare Borgia (Welles)

Orson Welles and his calculating stare

Prince of Foxes was the far better film. It was better written, better acted, better scenery, better action, and I really enjoyed it. (Tyrone plays Andrea Orsini, working with the infamous Borgias at conquering Italy until he falls in love and has a change of heart and decides to lead a revolt against the Borgias, which doesn't exactly go so swimmingly.) Man, Tyrone Power sure gets himself in trouble in his films, doesn't he? I'm starting to think there isn't a period film he was in where he doesn't get either seriously wounded or tortured. The actress in Prince of Foxes (Wanda Hendrix) was like some blonde Gene Tierney knockoff. Wide set eyes, prominent cheekbones, big lips and overbite. Not perhaps so much in a still shot, but in action, when she talked, all I could think of was Gene Tierney.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tyrone Power double feature

Captain From Castile (1947) and The Black Swan (1942). The first, I didn't particularly like. I have issues with sprawling movies that don't have cohesive plots. This one starts out okay, but then we get to the New World with Cortez and not much really happens after that point. Tyrone has minor random adventures, gets nearly killed twice, and mostly follows Smilin' Jack, aka Cortez, around the Mexico countryside while the latter prepares to conquer the Aztecs. There's no real point to it all, no conclusion either. Tyrone doesn't even get to take care of the Spanish Inquisition rat who murdered his sister, though he gets blamed for it. It's a rather sprawling, meandering, uncomfortable, and surprisingly brutal film. That's not to say it didn't have its good points. I liked the actors a lot, particularly Lee J. Cobb, love the scenery and the costumes, love the music, but other than Paricutin and Alfred Newman's famous and completely wonderful Conquest theme, there's not much memorable here for me.

I come from a family of geologists/astronomers, so one of the highlights of this film (and one of the reasons I rented it) was seeing the Mexican cinder cone Paricutin in action. It was erupting during this period, and the filmmakers made nice use of nature's display. The ash blocking the sun lends a different coloring to a lot of the outdoor shots and it's beautiful and atmospheric.

Paricutin erupting in the background, no CGI here!

The volcano's over the horizon in this pic, but look at that lovely ash cloud and the contrast it provides! Love it!

The Black Swan, on the other hand, I absolutely fell in love with. No pretenses about this movie. It's a rollickingly good, Technicolor, pirate adventure film. I don't think it's possible for Tyrone to look any hotter than he does in this movie. Being a ruffian suits him immensely, from the scruff to the outfits to the pirate attitude he tries to curb, to the swash on his buckle. And Maureen O'Hara is his lovely sassy leading lady, and there couldn't be a better match for him. They spark and rail against each other, beat each other up and fall in love on the high seas. It's just so much unrepentant and unpolitically correct (by today's standards) fun.

But really, the guy who steals the film is Laird Cregar. I swear, the man can do no wrong in a film. He's awesome in every film I've seen him in, and what a tragedy that we lost him at such a young age. He simply owns the screen when he's on, and not just because he's so physically imposing. He's got the charisma, the voice, the presence to go with it. I just love him. So many of the good moments in this film belong to him.

This is a film I'd definitely like to own. As far as pirate movies go, this one's way near the very top of my list.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Who is that guy??

So, I was watching Union Pacific (1939), with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck not too long ago. Fun solid movie. I knew most of the actors in it but one. This guy:

I did not recognize him at all. He played a rather rougish gambler, not quite on the right side of the law. His smooth-talking charm was a nice foil for Joel McCrea's honest law-abiding character, and their scenes together were really good. Now, I'd even watched and read the credits in the beginning of the movie, seen his name go by... and I still couldn't put name to face. About 3/4ths through, I'd had it. He was driving me crazy. I had to know who it was. So, paused the film, looked it up on IMDb... it was Robert Preston.

Now, really, I actually wouldn't expect me to recognize him. I'm not familiar with him as much more than a name. I think the first thing I ever saw him in was The Last Starfighter, which I saw in the theater in 1984. No, I've never seen more than a few random musical numbers from The Music Man. I may love musicals, but never could get into that one. One of these days someone might force me to sit through the whole darned thing. So really, knowing him only in one of the last movies he ever made, how would I recognize him when he's 21 and quite the handsome young hunk?

Interestingly, his voice (if I'd paid attention) is very recognizable.

Since watching Union Pacific, Robert Preston has started popping up in all sorts of movies I've been watching. (So weird how that happens.) He showed up as the smooth-talking, ratfink bad guy in Best of the Badmen (1951) with Robert Ryan and Claire Trevor. He popped up in Wake Island (1942), in which, even knowing this time he was in it... I didn't recognize him in his first few scenes yet again. What is he, a chameleon?? Or is it just me? I had the Union Pacific and Best of the Bad Men curly-haired and moustached Robert Preston in my mind, and couldn't make the jump to clean-cut, burly marine. What finally gave him away in Wake Island was his voice.

And I notice he's also in Blood on the Moon (1948), with Robert Mitchum, which I'm due to watch next. Wonder what he'll be like in that one?