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The Problem With Modern Action Movies

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Action movies just aren’t what they used to be. On Saturday night, I watched the film version of the hit 1980s TV show, the A-Team. A part of me hoped for an enjoyable experience, but, just as I had expected, I found the film to be cliched, formulaic, and predictable.

It became evident early on that the filmmakers had taken little to no effort in the making of this story. The plot was boring and predictable, and the characters were two dimensional. Indeed, it seemed that most of the film had been devoted to bad digital effects and over-the-top action sequences.

This is the kind of thing that passes for action movies nowadays. It is a far cry from the greats of yesteryear which, at least in the best of cases, were willing to combine action with intelligence. It is certainly true that these films featured death-defying stunts, mind-blowing special effects, and well-choreographed action sequences. However, it is also true that the best among them also featured complex, three-dimensional characters and clever, intricate plots. Yes, these films often pushed the boundaries of disbelief, but we were more than happy to suspend our disbelief for them anyway.

Any successful movie, particularly an action movie, requires two things: a good plot and good characters. One of the biggest problems with the modern action movie is that they are often boring. The audience finds it difficult to engage with the story because there is no character or plot for them to care about.

Great action movies have great, exciting stories. The problem is that modern action movies have a tendency to recycle the same tired stories over and over again. Audiences have been subjected to an endless array of reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels. Audiences crave originality. What we need is original stories, not a rehash of a television show that ended over thirty-years-ago.

It’s not as though an action movie’s plot has to be entirely original, either. Most of us are willing to accept a familiar, or even cliched, story provided it’s presented in a new and interesting way. Take, as a case in point, the film Speed. Its plot is essentially a rehash of the Die Hard model, but by placing the action on a bus, the filmmakers managed to gain the appreciation of their audience by presenting them with something novel.

In addition to the importance of plot, it is also equally important to discuss the importance of character. Modern day action heroes often lack interesting character arcs. The audience has not been allowed to care about the characters as people and therefore have little reason to root for them. People like to see characters go through a personal journey. They like to see them grow and develop as a character. Good action heroes have some kind of flaw, whether it be a bad attitude, debris from their past, poor self-esteem, or any one of a thousand different things, that he or she must overcome to complete their mission.

The heroes of great action movies were relatable. The filmmakers knew they had to combine the right amount of vulnerability with the right amount of grit. We had to believe that these people bled, made mistakes, and felt pain.

In other words, these heroes had vulnerabilities. They were not invincible. The audience could believe that Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop) spent most of his time busting low-level crooks in downtown Detroit and that he genuinely felt anger and grief over the murder of his friend. In Die Hard, the filmmakers were prepared to take the time to let us get to know John McLane. We learnt that he was an Irish-American police officer, that he was a father, that he was estranged from his wife, and that he was frightened of flying. And when he had to fight terrorists, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the FBI, we genuinely rooted for him because we had been allowed to get to know him.

Equally important, if not more important in many cases, is the film’s villain. Good stories have good protagonists, great stories have great antagonists. There has to be something in a villain that makes him at least a little bit likeable, or even sympathetic. A part of us has to be able to understand his motivations and even root for him. We could understand why Karl wanted to kill John McLane because we had seen McLane kill his brother. And we could understand why Speed’s chief antagonist, Howard Payne, wanted to hold the city of Los Angeles to ransom after we learnt that he had been injured in an explosion working for the LAPD. Heck, even films in which the villain wants money or power, or both, are relatable because we want these things, too.

If the producers of action movies were willing to invest as much time and effort in story and character development as they were on special effects, it is possible that they might someday produce another great action movie. But, with the way things are going, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

 

NOTE: I apologise for the long delay between articles. I have been in the process of preparing a rather lengthy article on constitutional monarchy.

HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT

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There is more to life than just politics. And in the spirit of such a sentiment, this article will take a light-hearted focus on an aspect of popular culture. In specific, it will examine the stars, personalities, and faces that are featured in the 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Hollywood Steps Out.

The cartoon takes place in Ciro’s Nightclub, which is located from 1940 to 1957 on Sunset Boulevard. A neon sign ironically advertises a meal for $50.00 (US$860.00 in today’s money). The first two stars we see are Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996), famous for playing sophisticated women in light-hearted comedies and emotional dramas, and Don Ameche (1908 – 1993), a film and radio personality who played debonair men. Seated behind them are Adolphe Menjou (1890 – 1963) and Norma Shearer (1902 – 1983), who played spunky and sexually liberated women.

The first interaction occurs between Cary Grant (1904 – 1986), iconic for playing debonair leading men, and the Swedish-American film star, Greta Garbo (1905 – 1990), who is acting as the cigarette girl.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Edward G. Robinson (1893 – 1973), who rose to fame playing gangsters in films like Little Caesar, talking to Ann Sheridan (1915 – 1967). Robinson makes reference to the fact that Sheridan had been voted the actress with the most “oomph” by asking her how her “oomph” is.

The cartoon then pans across a series of tables. At the first table is Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger (1884 – 1949), both of whom were Warner Brothers staffers. The next three tables are empty. The first is reserved for Bette Davis (1908 – 1989), famous for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters. The second is reserved for Kate Smith (1907 – 1986), the corpulent American signer. The third is reserved for the cast of Blondie, a radio sitcom that ran from 1939 to 1950. Finally, a fire hydrant has been reserved for Daisy the Dog.

The cartoon then takes us to the cloaking room. Johnny Weissmuller (1904 – 1984), an Olympic swimming champion best known for playing Tarzan (the famous Tarzan yell is his), hands Paulette Goddard (1910 – 1990), a former Ziegfeld girl and film star, his coat. Following Weissmuller is the burlesque dancer, Sally Rand (1904 – 1979). Rand hands Goddard her famous feathers and leaves, presumably naked.

At the bar sits James Cagney (1899 – 1986), famous for playing gangsters, Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957), famous for playing cynical and hardboiled characters in film noir pictures, and George Raft (1901 – 1980), also famous for playing gangsters. They are depicted drinking, planning a crime, and pitching pennies.

Harpo Marx (1888 – 1964), the famous prankster of the Marx Brothers, is seen lighting a match under Greta Garbo’s feet.

Next, Clark Gable (1901 – 1960), the undisputed King of Hollywood and star of films like Gone with the Wind, is depicted sitting alone at a table.

Bing Crosby (1903 – 1977), a famous crooner known for songs like “White Christmas, introduces the composer Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) as the evening’s entertainment. Stokowski was best known for his work on Disney’s Fantasia.

In the restaurant, Dorothy Lamour (1914 – 1986), an actress and singer, asks James Stewart (1908 – 1997), known for playing shy, everyman characters, if he would dance with her. Stewart runs away after seeing Lamour dance and leaves behind a sign saying, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (a reference to one of Stewart’s films).

Several famous stars are depicted on the dance floor. Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958), known for playing swashbuckling and romantic leads, dances with the Olympic champion figure skater and film star, Sonja Hennie (1912 – 1969). Frankenstein is depicted dancing mechanically. The Three Stooges, one of the most iconic slapstick comedy groups of all time, poke and slap each other in rhythm. Oliver Hardy (1892 – 1957), the fatter half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo, dances with two women at the same time. Finally, Caesar Romero (1907 – 1994), dances with Rita Hayworth (1918 – 1987), star of films like Gilda.

Mickey Rooney (1920 – 2014), who found fame playing Andy Hardy, and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969), a notable singer, dancer, vaudevillian, and film star best remembered for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rooney asks Lewis Stone (1879 – 1953), an American character actor, if he can have a “heart to heart talk” with him.

For the next performance, Crosby introduces Sally Rand (he introduces her as Sally Strand, no doubt for legal reasons) and her famous bubble dance. The radio personality and bandleader, Kay Kyser (1905 – 1985), calls to his students. These are William Powell (1892 – 1984), known for playing debonair men, Spencer Tracy (1900 – 1967), known for his natural style and versatility, Ronald Colman (1891 – 1958), Errol Flynn (1909 – 1959), the Australian-American film star famous for playing swashbuckling heroes, Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949), and the English cricketer and film star, C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948).

The Austro-Hungarian born actor, Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964), known for playing creepy and cowardly characters, is depicted sitting at a table by himself. Henry Fonda (1907 – 1982), known for playing characters brimming with heroic integrity, sits at the next table. The voice that calls out “Hen-ree” is a reference to Alice Aldrich of the Aldrich family. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972), the legendary first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is depicted repeating “g” over and over again.

At the next table is Boris Karloff (1887 – 1972), most famous for playing Frankenstein, Arthur Treacher (1894 – 1975), a comedian best known for playing stereotypical Englishmen, Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966), a silent-era comedian who legendary status is bettered only by Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977), and the Russian-American film star, Mischa Auer (1905 – 1967).  The man who asks them if they are enjoying themselves is Ned Sparks (1883 – 1957), a Canadian character actor known for playing serious characters.

At the next table is Jerry Colonna (1904 – 1986), a well-known musician and comedian, sitting with the invisible man. Finally, the woman Clark Gable has spent the entire cartoon chasing is revealed to be none other than Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977).

MOONLIGHT SERENADE

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This week for our cultural article we will be looking at Glenn Miller’s signature tune, the dreamy ballad Moonlight Serenade.

BIG BAND JAZZ

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Moonlight Serenade is a classic of Big Band Jazz, a popular form of music during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike smaller jazz combos, which relies heavily on improvisation, Big Band Jazz is usually highly arranged. It typically involves ten or more musicians, including a minimum of three trumpeters, two or more trombonists, four or more saxophonists, and a rhythm section consisting of a pianist, bassist, guitarist, and drummer

GLENN MILLER

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Glenn Miller was born on March 1st, 1904 in Iowa. His family moved frequently through his childhood: first to Missouri, then to Nebraska, before finally settling in Colorado in 1918. Miller briefly played the mandolin before switching to the trombone. He played in the school band while attending High School in Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Upon graduating in 1921, Miller joined Boyd Senter’s Orchestra. He left the band briefly in 1923 to attend college, but quit after a year to return to music. He worked with the Ben Pollack Band in Los Angeles, California, before moving to New York City to work as a freelance trombonist and arranger.

In 1934, Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s Band. The next year, Miller would form an American orchestra for British bandleader, Ray Noble. That same year, Miller formed his own band and began recording under his own name.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra found fame in 1939 when it performed at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.  The performance was broadcasted on the radio, exposing Glenn Miller to millions of people.

On December 15th, 1944, the transport plane taking Miller to the newly liberated Paris disappeared. He was forty-years-old.

THE SONG

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Moonlight Serenade was written in 1935 when Miller was working as a trombonist with the Ray Noble Band. In 1938, Miller used the song has a theme for his NBC radio broadcast.  On April 4th, 1939, Miller recorded Moonlight Serenade as a b-side for Sunrise Serenade.  The song became a success, becoming a top ten hit on the US Pop Charts, and reached number three on the Billboard charts, where it stayed for fifteen weeks.

Miller’s Moonlight Serenade symbolises the sound of a by-gone era. An era when men wore suits and women wore dresses, and when Big Band Jazz ruled the airwaves. Why not consider giving it a listen?