Friday, February 5, 2016

Creed

Creed
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens

When Creed first began doing gigs around their hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, grunge rock had started to become played out. They had to settle for playing in family restaurants. They played mostly cover songs, but all the while they were writing original material for what would eventually become their 1997 debut record My Own Prison, which they initially released on their own Blue Collar Records label. According to manager Jeff Hanson, fourteen labels had passed on the band, until representatives from Wind-Up Records came to Tallahassee to hear them perform - 

PSYYYYYYYYCHE!!

Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were paying attention.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I still miss John Candy

The 2016 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the link at Speakeasy.

I remember being dragged to see Uncle Buck when it first came out. I forget which group of friends I was with; it was probably my high school friends. I have absolutely no idea why I didn't think I would like what was a relatively harmless comedy. My movie tastes were still vague and unformed back then. On the other hand, maybe I wanted to see something else and was outvoted. Possible.

I didn't pay close attention to movie stars back then, either, so I doubt I could've told you who John Candy was. I probably would've recognized him as Tom Hanks' brother in Splash, or Barf in Spaceballs - if you had pointed it out to me. I probably knew TV stars better. (Yes, I know, Candy was on TV too, but I had missed out on SCTV as a kid.)


Point is, I liked Uncle Buck and I liked Candy. It was one of the first times the comedian had a starring vehicle for himself after years of sidekick roles and bit parts, and he got to put a spin on his lovable oaf persona with a lead character that had more of a sardonic edge. Small wonder it became one of his biggest hits.

I remember being sad when Candy died in 1994. By that point, I had seen more of his movies on cable and I got to appreciate him better. He may not have been a superstar on the level of contemporaries like Steve Martin or Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy, but his was always a welcome face in a movie, no matter how big or small.

The Newmarket, Ontario native kicked around Canadian TV during the early days of his acting career until he joined the Toronto branch of the comedy troupe Second City in 1974. The original Second City theater opened in Chicago in 1959 and the Toronto branch opened in 1973. (I remember going to SC when I visited Chicago in 1997. Liked it a lot.) The emphasis was and is on improvisational sketch comedy. 


Candy joined a troupe which included, among others, future comedy legends Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. In 1976, they launched the TV show SCTV which, like its American cousin Saturday Night Live, revolved around ensemble sketch comedy, often featuring memorable characters, such as Candy's obnoxious TV star Johnny LaRue.

If you grew up in the 80s, you remember the movies he appeared in: Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation, Little Shop of Horrors, Planes Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, etc. I guess I liked him because he seemed so easy to relate to. He didn't need to yell and scream; he didn't have a specific shtick; he just seemed to fit in well with whatever role he inhabited. He complimented guys like Martin and Murray and Hanks, and you felt like his characters had heart. Don't take my word for it, though; check out what Eugene Levy had to say about him.

Candy had a small role in the Oliver Stone drama JFK. Had he lived, would he have followed in the footsteps of Martin and Hanks and Robin Williams by pursuing drama further? I think he could've easily done it. I could see him as part of a Paul Thomas Anderson ensemble, for instance - but I wouldn't have wanted him to make it a permanent switch.


Last year, Second City Toronto opened the John Candy Box Theatre, a training ground for up and coming comedians. Among those who helped launch it was Candy's daughter Jen, who 's pursuing a stand-up career herself. Here she is in a TV interview the day after the opening, talking about her father.

I think John Candy would still be active today had he lived: maybe as part of a cable TV show, maybe making indie films, maybe going back to theater. He was too good an actor to go out of demand. I miss him. I'm glad he gave us what he did, while he did.

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Films by John Candy:
Little Shop of Horrors

Monday, February 1, 2016

The link who fell to Earth

Unfortunately, I don't have any interesting stories related to the music of David Bowie. I never saw him in concert, nor did he inspire me to explore my sexuality or anything along those lines. Like many people, I simply dug his music, and I'm really sad to see him departed from this life. As an actor - and he had been one almost as long as he had been a singer - he had an eclectic range of roles, as you would expect from one who took on roles in his musical performances: Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, Andy Warhol in Basquiat, Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, and this is in addition to his more famous roles in The Hunger, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and of course, Labyrinth. The man was a true original.


I can say a few more words, however, about the Ziegfeld Theater, which finally closed its doors for good last month. I didn't go there that often, but it seemed every time I did was like an event. The Ziegfeld I knew was not, of course, The Ziegfeld; not the original. I like to think, however, it lived up to its namesake. It was a splendid place to watch movies, especially the large ones. I had the privilege of seeing two 70mm films there: The Master and Interstellar. I also remember standing on line around the block with John & Sue to see both Attack of the Clones (sitting in the back, mocking Anakin and Padme) and Return of the King (wondering how many times it would end).

The heyday of the old midtown movie houses had passed by the time I came up. I was too young for the grindhouse-era 70s and I'm certainly too young to have experienced the glamour days of the 30s and 40s. The closing of the Ziegfeld means the severing of the last tie to that era, where a night at the movies in midtown Manhattan was a spectacle, a gala event. The Ziegfeld was a reminder of what that period was like, and there are precious few of them remaining - at least, that still show movies.


Moving on to lighter news: I have Photoshop again, as you can tell from the new banner. A dude in my writing group discovered - quite easily, too - something I should've figured out for myself: the program just needed to be reinstalled! Duh!

Oscars are this month, though I don't expect to do well predictions-wise. I have to remind myself that what I want to win and what I think will win are two different things. Still undecided on whether or not to see The Revenant. At this point I could go either way.

Your links for this month:

If you only click on one of these links (though naturally I hope you check out all of them), make sure you read what Jacqueline calls her "manifesto" on Donald Trump, classic movies, and education

Ryan eulogizes Bowie way better than I could.

Ruth remembers another British thespian who passed last month, Alan Rickman, with her favorite films by him.

Two reviews of two absolutely bizarre-sounding movies: Kristina from Speakeasy writes about The Madmen of Mandoras and Angela from The Hollywood Revue talks about The Phynx.

Courtney thinks The Hateful Eight has a race problem.

Pam bids adieu to a favorite movie theater from her childhood.

Aurora talks about the cinematic duo of director Billy Wilder and star Jack Lemmon.

Retrospace's excellent podcast, The Horshack Redemption, does an all-sci-fi episode which includes discussion of The Force Awakens.



Friday, January 29, 2016

Anomalisa

Anomalisa
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

In 1970, Professor Masahiro Mori, an expert in the field of robotics, theorized that as robots start to look more like humans, they'll become easier to empathize with. If one were to chart this progression on a graph, in which the x-axis represents human likeness and the y-axis equals familiarity, the points on the graph would form an ascending line. At a certain point, however, as the theory goes, a robot can look too human, and empathy quickly changes to revulsion. On the graph, there would be a dramatic descent in the line. When a robot's resemblance is no longer in sync with that of a human's, the line re-ascends. Eight years later, this concept was given the name "uncanny valley."

In animation, as technology has improved, especially with computers, the quest for making the perfect-looking human has escalated. Every year, movies and video games continue to push the boundaries when it comes to making more lifelike humans. In recent years, performance-capture technology has produced animated human characters of varying quality in films like The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf.



Stop-motion animation is different. This is something I've talked about here before: somehow, at least for me, the most photo-realistic computer animation doesn't make me feel its "realness" more than stop-motion, probably because even the most photo-realistic computer animation still amounts to nothing more than illusions, phantasms. Stop-motion uses real materials that are manipulated in real space, not on a computer screen - and seeing real objects appear to move that don't normally move can be very unsettling, especially when you're looking at objects made to look as much like humans as possible.

This brings us to Anomalisa. The first time I saw the poster (that is, in real life and not on a computer screen), I was fooled into thinking it was a live-action movie, but then, I wasn't looking very closely. If I had, I would've noticed the seams running along the eye-line, across the bridge of the nose and up and down the sides of the face of David Thewlis' character Michael. Every "claymation" puppet in the film is like this, and as I watched it, I thought at first that perhaps it was a necessity in order to better animate the face. All I knew of this movie was what I saw in the trailer when I went to see Room



Without those seams, the characters look quite realistic - and maybe that's why they're there in the first place: to avoid the uncanny valley effect. (Once again, I'm writing this without having read about the movie, except for the one piece I happened to read last week, so my impressions will be fresher.) Even with those seams, they looked real enough, to a degree I don't think I've ever seen in a claymation picture before. I kept thinking the eyes, which people usually say are the dead giveaway as to whether animation looks real or not, must be CGI - and maybe they are. I'm not sure. The way light reflected off of them, plus the way they moved, couldn't be stop-motion like everything else, could it?

And then there's the puppet sex. I knew Anomalisa would have it, and I also knew that it wouldn't be treated like a joke, like in Team America, but I was utterly unprepared to see how far directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson were gonna go with it until I saw it unfold. (Spoiler alert: they go ALL THE WAY with it.) I found watching that scene unsettling. Part of it was the uncanny valley effect, but part of it was also the level of intimacy at work. It doesn't play like a sex scene in a typical Hollywood movie; there's uncertainty, shyness and a few false starts, yet I have to admit, as a scene, it worked.



So I guess now's a good time to talk about the story. Thewlis' character Michael is a corporate executive whose specialty is customer service (he wrote a book about it), and he has flown into Cincinnati to give a lecture before a group of retail/customer service employees, including Jennifer Jason Leigh's Lisa. Michael, a married man with a kid, looks up an old flame, but their conversation quickly turns sour. He gets depressed over roads not taken until he meets Lisa, with whom he has a pretty passionate one-night stand. Things look different the morning after, though, in more ways than one.

The film doesn't play out quite this simply. Every other character besides Michael and Lisa, looks similar, men and women both, and are all voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. This irritated me at first, until I understood why: it was meant to make Lisa stand out that much more. One thing Michael adores about Lisa when he first meets her is her voice, which is supplied by Leigh and not Noonan. Ironically, Lisa, while a nice girl, is not that extraordinary. She's introverted, almost painfully so; going about in the shadow of her more vivacious friend. She also has a scar on her temple that she hides with her hair and she's quite self-conscious about it. And then there are Michael's disturbing dreams...


Look closely at the faces of everyone surrounding Michael.

On a meta level, one can understand how even someone like Lisa can stand out in a world where everyone else literally looks and sounds similar. For Michael, she shines like a beacon in the dark, and he's ready to leave his wife and son for her, but then something changes. I won't reveal it here, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because it's difficult to describe. It's where the movie lost me.

Michael struck me as a dude going through a mid-life crisis, who needed Lisa to feel young again. She already idolized him, having read his book and come to hear him speak. She's not as demanding as his wife; in fact, she's practically putty in his hands. I wasn't completely convinced that what he felt was love, though we're meant to believe otherwise. I suspect the change that takes place might be as much his fault as anything else's. A conversation I heard in the bathroom afterwards would seem to confirm that, though I'm not sure.



Anomalisa isn't bad - the animation alone makes this a must-see - but given all the breathless raves for it, I expected something spectacular, and that's not what I ended up with. This is without a doubt one of those "see it again" movies, because there's clearly much more going on than meets the eye, and I'd be willing to do so. It just irks me that so many other people "got it" the first time and I didn't. Oh well.

P.S. If you're in the New York area, the Museum of the Moving Image currently has an Anomalisa exhibit running through next month.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Room (2015)

Room (2015)
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

When I spent a little over a year in Columbus, Ohio, I lived in a tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood with my friend Max. I must have met him sometime in the late 90s, when I was self-publishing comics and touring all over the country. Dude's a self-taught cartoonist.

I can't give you a sense of how small our place was based on words alone. It's not like I cared enough to try and measure it for myself, so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was barely big enough for one person, much less two. There was a kitchen, a living room, a room that Max had been using for storage but most people, I suppose, would've used for a bedroom (he didn't even own a bed; I don't know why) and a bathroom, which was the only place one could get any privacy. All the other rooms led into each other, without any doors, so in a way, it was almost like living in a single room.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The File on Thelma Jordon

The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon is exactly what it says on the tin, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the host site.

The File on Thelma Jordon (AKA Thelma Jordon)
YouTube viewing

It took me awhile to really get into The File on Thelma Jordon. For one thing, I was expecting a noir and it started out as a romance - and with a drunk man who was not that great looking to begin with. I would've thought Barbara Stanwyck had had better taste! In a nutshell, Stany's the prime suspect in a murder case, and her lover, Wendell Corey as an assistant district attorney, is the one who must prosecute her. The two of them also appear together in The Furies, from the same year, 1950.



She meets Corey under false pretenses, where he leads her to believe he's the DA when he's not. He's drunk out of his mind and tries to hit on her (he's married), even going so far as to chase her out of the building and to her car. But when he kisses her, wouldn't you know it, she kinda likes it a little. 

Stany's not riffing on Phyllis Dietrichson here; in her opening scene, she comes across as a fairly normal woman, so why she would find Corey anything but repulsive is beyond me. Still, once he sobers up the next day, he's not as bad, so I guess I could buy her giving him a second chance. Maybe.



I would've skipped the courtship between the two and started the film on the night of the murder, because that's when things start to get interesting. Corey thinks he can protect Stany, even when it comes time for the trial, but there's something he doesn't know that turns out to make all the difference in the world.

Stany's Thelma doesn't come across as your typical femme fatale anti-heroine at first. We slowly get hints that she may not be as innocent as she seems, but she doesn't quite come across as the type to commit murder, either. In movies like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or Crime of Passion, we see her ambition, her willingness to manipulate her men into doing her bidding, but here it's the reverse. It's Corey who's pushing her to do this and that at every turn, especially on the night of the murder. I guess I'm just not used to seeing her in that kind of role.


I wish we could've seen more of this dog.

Thelma isn't bad overall, but it doesn't quite compare with those other Stany movies I mentioned. I liked Corey better in The Furies, where the creepiness of his character works for him. I didn't completely buy him as a leading man, and certainly not as one worthy of Stany.

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All my Stany posts (so far!)
Baby Face
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy
Sorry, Wrong Number
The Big Valley
Stella Dallas
The Lady Eve/Forty Guns
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (book review)
Banjo on My Knee/Remember the Night
Double Indemnity
Dynasty/The Colbys
My Reputation
The Furies
So Big!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Five ways to tell a SF/F story without a bad guy

Yes, I'm gonna bitch about The Force Awakens again, but only to make a bigger point. One of the biggest disappointments of the film for me was Adam Driver's character, Kylo Ren. As a villain, he didn't seem imposing and powerful enough to carry the film the way Darth Vader originally did in A New Hope, and because he came across like a third-rate Vader clone, his shtick felt old. (Just as an aside: Jen from my writing group agreed with me that TFA was a ripoff of A New Hope. She was pretty pleased that someone else thought the same thing as her!)

Did TFA even need a Big Bad? I realize this is Star Wars, and to not anticipate villains of some sort is probably the height of naivete, but one of my original hopes for this movie was for it to somehow distinguish itself from other modern genre movies, now that Star Wars is no longer the franchise everyone else looks to for innovation. Going without a central villain, even if only for one movie, could have shook up expectations in a big way, and could have even reexamined the way the Star Wars universe is perceived.

I reckon that most of the time now, sci-fi/fantasy movies are expected to have a primary antagonist of some sort. If it's a great, memorable villain, like Lord Voldemort or Agent Smith or Saruman, even better, but I'd like to see more mainstream films that buck this trend. Here are five kinds of general story tropes that can work perfectly fine without a bad guy, along with five examples of same.


- The rescue. It's often part of a typical genre movie, but rarely does it encompass the entire plot, and we don't have to look far for an example: last year's "musical comedy" (really, Golden Globes? Really?) The Martian

A rescue story may seem anti-climactic to a certain extent - who goes into one expecting the rescue attempt to fail? - but it's the "how" that's the exciting part: how the hero stays alive, how to extract him based on certain limitations and constraints. Bonus points if there's a time limit.

Part of the appeal of The Martian was seeing how Matt Damon survives, all alone, on Mars. It's a situation none of us could ever picture ourselves in, and yet the ingenuity and positive attitude of Damon's character made us want to watch him, to find out how much longer he could meet each new challenge and hold out until help arrived.


- The discovery. Discovering alien life would be a natural way to use this trope in genre movies, and Contact is a good example. One could argue that this movie has bad guys, but Tom Skerritt acts as more of a rival to Jodie Foster than an outright bad guy, and James Woods only appears for a small part of the movie.

A discovery movie challenges preconceived ideas about man and our place in the universe. We always thought things were x; now they're y. How do we deal with that? Contact provides answers by showing us the ground-level implications of the new fact of alien life, especially from a religious angle. Were aliens created in God's image too, and is that thought sacrilegious?


- The journey. From The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, journeys, or quests, tend to have powerful antagonists that have a profound impact on the plot, but there are exceptions, and I would argue that The NeverEnding Story is one. The wolf Gmork is as helpless to prevent the destruction of Fantasia as anyone else, and while he presents a great challenge to be overcome, he doesn't factor into the story's climax the way a Big Bad like, say, the Wicked Witch of the West does. He's a villain, but not the villain.

I don't think I need to quote Joseph Campbell to get you to understand the appeal of a story with a journey. NES raises the stakes by having Atreyu's journey function as a story-within-a-story, and Bastian, the real-world child who's the film's true protagonist, travels with Atreyu in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, as we discover towards the climax. It's a mind-bender of a movie which works on more than one level.


- The search. In this case, I don't mean searching for someone to be rescued, but a search for anyone or anything vital to the plot. All three stories in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain involve searches of one kind or another, without a prime antagonist.

The search could involve going on a journey, or a discovery could be made during the search (none of these story types are mutually exclusive to each other), but the point is that somebody needs to find something or someone, or else.

The Tree of Life of legend links all three tales in The Fountain. Hugh Jackman, as three characters across three time periods, looks for it, uses it to find a cure for his dying wife, and takes it with him to search for a new home in space. Maybe you liked the way Aronofsky pulled it off, maybe you didn't (assuming you even saw it). Personally, I liked it.


- The romance. A love story of some kind is often supplemental to a genre adventure of some sort, but rarely is it the raison d'etre. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an excellent case study, in which the sci-fi elements support an unusual romance.

The nice thing about a SF/F romance is that it's not reliant on alien settings or different time periods. In fact, telling such a story in the "real world," or something very close to it, has the potential to attract a bigger audience, one which might not normally watch a genre movie.

In Sunshine, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have their memories of each other erased by a business that specializes in this practice, yet in Carrey's case, he can't quite let go of his memories of Winslet. It's a bittersweet love story that speaks to the experiences of anyone who has loved and lost, and the sci-fi elements make it stand out from the vast majority of romances that have explored similar territory.

Thoughts?

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Related:
"Nothing ever ends."