Friday, December 19, 2014

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2014

This was a bit of an odd year for me in terms of movie-going. I visited some venues for the first time, such as the Walter Reade in Manhattan's Lincoln Center (something I wanted to talk about but never did; oh well), Movieworld here in Queens, and Videology in Brooklyn. But I also walked out of a movie for the first time in a long time, and I saw the custodians of one of my favorite theaters do battle with the city it calls home for control of that same theater. Plus, I didn't do as many outdoor movies as in the recent past. It's okay, though; I still had a good time at the movies overall, and these are the best of those times. If you're new here, this list isn't about the best movies I saw this year (that comes in another month or so), but rather, the most memorable moments I had at the movies this year.

5. Interstellar in 70mm at the Ziegfeld. When I wrote about this, I said that I wasn't certain if the difference between seeing a movie on celluloid and seeing it on digital was that noticeable, and I was totally wrong. It occurred to me afterwards, though, that I had seen Doubt at the Loews Jersey City on celluloid, earlier this year, in fact, and I remember noticing the difference then (probably because it was a recent movie as opposed to an old one), but I never said anything about it. And I think that I should have. Regardless, although Interstellar probably won't make my top ten for the year, I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen it on celluloid, in 70mm, in a grand movie theater like the Ziegfeld.

4. Visiting the Alamo Drafthouse for the first time. I saw The Wind Rises, but really, this is a case where the movie was irrelevant: I finally had the Alamo experience! I had to go far out of my way for it - all the way to Yonkers - but it was worth it. A restaurant-worthy menu, wait staff serving my food directly to my seat, pre-show entertainment worth paying attention to, a zero tolerance policy on talkers and texters - I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Alamo is what all movie theaters should aspire to. Eagerly looking forward to the opening of the Brooklyn location next year.

3. He Who Gets Slapped with the Alloy Orchestra at Prospect Park. Any opportunity to see a film with a live score by the Alloy is a cause for celebration, and this was no exception, especially as part of such a bizarre and darkly fascinating movie as He Who Gets Slapped. Having Aurora and Joe along didn't hurt either. I had the great pleasure of seeing three movies with Aurora this year, in fact, and this was the best of them. Next time I go to Prospect Park or any outdoor venue, though, I have got to remember to bring some bug spray!

2. West Side Story with Rita Moreno at the United Palace. I haven't been back to Washington Heights' new-old theater since seeing West Side Story, but when I do, I imagine it'll be mighty hard to top the evening I had there way back in February. Dancers on stage before the show, live music and more dancing in the lobby during intermission and at the end, a packed and pumped-up crowd, and to top it all off, a rare appearance by an entertainment legend, Rita Moreno, who was as charming and candid and lively as you would expect her to be. This was truly a special night, and I hope that the Palace can continue in this vein. If you live in the NYC area, by all means, make the trip uptown to see a film at this extraordinary movie palace that has been well-preserved throughout the years.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. Full stop. There have been other movies this year that have entertained me, whether through laughter or tears. There have been better movies overall in terms of originality, vision and theme. But Guardians was different - and if you had told me in advance that this movie could thrill and amuse me as much as it did, I would've laughed in your face! And I can't even point to comic book nostalgia as the reason why I had such a good time with this movie, because this is an incarnation of the Guardians that I'm completely unfamiliar with. Kudos to director James Gunn and all involved for making a sci-fi adventure that, while derivative, was unafraid to just let loose and be a little bit silly and have a good time, and isn't that what going to the movies should be all about, in the end?

Share your best movie-going moments from this year if you got 'em.

2013 top five
2012 top five
2011 top five

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Off-topic: Newtown Literary w/my short story now available!

This is the front and back cover for the latest issue of Newtown Literary, which includes my short story "Airplanes." If you're in the New York area, you can pick it up directly at Astoria Bookshop, which is super easy to get to; just take the N or the Q trains to Broadway in Queens and walk a half block north. The rest of you can order it online right here. The theme for this issue is "speculative poetry and prose," and there's quite a variety of quality material here, so this will be well worth your while. Pick yours up today and let me know what you think!

Top Five

Top Five
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens NY

Last year, when I wrote about Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, I said that I missed his comedic work. There's no doubt that he has made himself over into a sensational dramatic actor, with two Oscars to back him up in this regard, and he hasn't completely given up on comedy, but the fact remains that he made a conscious decision to, if not abandon comedy, then at least to step back from it for awhile.

He's far from the first comedic actor to do so. Many funny men and women approach a point in their careers when they get the itch to test out their dramatic chops. Last year, seven minutes of footage from a documentary about Jerry Lewis' Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried surfaced. The comedic legend made the film over forty years ago, but it was never released, and he has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about it, for the most part, ever since. In this interview from 2009, though, while he's candid on some things about the film, he's evasive on others, and it's hard to tell for certain how he really feels about the movie.

Most of the time, I'm willing to give a comedian the benefit of the doubt whenever they go serious: Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner, Mike Myers in 54, Jim Carrey in The Majestic, to pick a few examples. I think actors should be willing to try new things once in awhile if they feel they have it within them to expand their boundaries...

... but they run the risk of alienating their audience if they do - and this is the conflict at the heart of the movie Top Five. It's funny that this should come out at around the same time as Birdman, another movie with similar themes. Both protagonists are Hollywood actors known for a specific character that has made them rich and famous, but has also pigeonholed them to a large extent. Both protagonists take a risk by starring in wildly different vehicles meant to redefine them as actors, and both of them suffer from self-doubt. Both are also comedies, but their approaches are as different as night and day.

For a brief time, back when I was still making comics, I was worried about whether or not I'd be able to escape the shadow of a graphic novella I made which got me the best reviews I'd ever had. It was tied to some deeply personal experiences I'd had which eventually came back to haunt me as a result of this book, and while I was proud of what I'd made, I was also frustrated with it as well, and I had to be talked out of taking it out of print (though that ended up happening anyway). I made subsequent stuff, but nothing that reached that book's heights, which were not even that high to begin with.

I suspect being perceived as a one-hit wonder is a very real fear for many creative people. Maybe that's one reason why serialization has become so popular in narrative fiction across multiple media. While I've been working on my novel, I've been doing a lot of reading about the craft of writing novels, and a lot of sources emphasize building a brand that one can be identified with in the marketplace. I have no idea whether or not I even have one novel in me, much less a series of novels, and naturally, I have no guarantees that this one novel will even be any kind of success. I recently talked to Jacqueline about this, and she assured me that there's no shame in making only a single novel if it's from the heart. It's something I'm trying to keep in mind as I write.

Back to the movie, though: I've always had great respect for Chris Rock, going back to my days in video retail when I'd occasionally put on one of his stand-up videos late at night, before closing, and became familiar with his routine. I remember watching early movies of his like CB4 and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka on video as well, and of course, he was one of the highlights of the Kevin Smith films Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

In the interviews he's done to promote Top Five, he's talked about, among many other things, the nature of comedy, and I think part of what makes this movie, which he wrote, produced and directed, notable, is that on a meta-textual level, this is his bid for "serious" legitimacy, as a director as well as an actor, but he does it without alienating his audience or sacrificing the things that make him unique and funny. 

This movie doesn't even feel like one of those comedy-drama hybrids that many comedic actors sometimes make (Good Morning Vietnam, Man on the Moon, Funny People, etc.). You know what I mean? A movie that's ostensibly a drama, but allows the comedian a context in which they can still be funny. 

Top Five isn't like that at all. People have been comparing it to the work of Woody Allen, but I think a better comparison might be to Steve Martin's sublime LA Story. On the surface, it feels like it could've come from the same guy who did The Jerk and All of Me and Three Amigos, but there's definitely a lot more going on here. And like Top Five, there's a love story at its heart. If you weren't a Chris Rock fan before, I think his movie will make you one.

And for the record, my top five rappers list (that's what the title refers to) is strictly old school: Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J and the Fat Boys. Basically, anybody who was in Krush Groove.

Monday, December 15, 2014

5 recent Xmas films that aren't really about Xmas

Paddy and I recently concluded that most modern Christmas movies tend to pummel you to death with Christmas cheer and Christmas spirit and Christmas themes in general. I suppose some people dig that sort of thing, but me, being the grinch that I am, I tend to sneer at it, especially if it's done poorly. When it's done well, as in, for example, Miracle on 34th Street, that's different - but few movies aspire to such heights. (Especially those featuring Kirk Cameron.)

I like movies that happen to take place during the holiday season, but aren't necessarily about the holiday season. I'm sure we can all cite movies like Die Hard, Home Alone, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns as examples, but I thought I'd try and think of more recent ones, like within the last twenty years. So if you've had your fill of mistletoe and eggnog and caroling - and even though it's only ten days before Christmas, I'd imagine it's quite possible! - consider these recent movies as an alternative to sitting around watching Jimmy Stewart gush about Zuzu's petals for the millionth time:*

- The Ref. Hilariously dark comedy about a bickering married couple held up in their home by a criminal during Christmas Eve, featuring Denis Leary, a pre-Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey and the underrated Judy Davis. I remember playing this one a lot during the holiday season during my video store days, and looking back on it now, I'm genuinely surprised this wasn't a bigger hit. Leary was hot at the time, and this was made as a vehicle for him and his motormouth stand-up routine, but the back and forth between Spacey and Davis is wickedly sublime - credit to co-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese of The Fisher King fame - and foreshadows Spacey's Oscar-winning role in American BeautyJudy Davis was moderately big in the 90s indie circuit, but never quite hit the heights like her fellow Australian Nicole Kidman. Still, her work in films like this, Children of the Revolution, Everyone Says I Love You, Husbands and Wives and Barton Fink is well worth seeking out.

- Frozen River. I still remember how blown away I was by this powerful drama set around Christmas time and Melissa Leo's towering performance in it. Two single mothers hard up for money join forces to engage in smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border, across the titular river. I fully believed this story from start to finish, and the stark realism that Leo embodied was etched on every line of her face. This is the kind of role every thespian, and especially every actress, dreams of. (On a side note, the tragic disappearance and death of co-star Misty Upham was heartbreaking to hear about.)

- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Speaking of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, who wrote that great sort-of-Christmas movie, also wrote and directed this great sort-of-Christmas movie, featuring Robert Downey Jr. (with whom he'd team up again in Iron Man 3) and Val Kilmer. It's a neo-noir film set in LA, with lots of the trademark Black brand of humor. I'd argue that RDJ's Hollywood renaissance began not with the first Iron Man movie, but here - another movie that should have done better at the box office than it did. Despite his troubled history, though, he's made mostly good choices with his roles, I think.

- In Bruges. Colin Farrell's always been kind of hit or miss for me, but I liked him in this crime comedy set in the titular Belgium city. He's a hitman who has to hide out in Bruges during the Christmas season when a hit goes wrong. Brendan Gleeson's in it too, so expect copious amounts of profanity laced with the humor. This is another one I discovered on video, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

- You've Got Mail. The Shop Around the Corner for the Internet age. Seems a bit dated now that bookstores in general, the corporate ones as well as the indies, are facing hard times, but it's Nora Ephron, and it's Tom & Meg, and you can't ask for much more when it comes to contemporary romantic comedy. Looks like Tom & Meg may team up for a fourth time, if only briefly.

Feel free to add your favorite sort-of-Christmas movies as well.

* - Yes, I know Christmas isn't the central theme of It's a Wonderful Life, but it has become the definitive de facto Christmas movie.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Princess Bride and fairness

Scott Roberts is a cartoonist friend of mine and is very erudite when it comes to American pop culture, and most other things, actually. Anyway, he recently wrote the following piece about the ending of The Princess Bride on his Facebook page and he has graciously allowed me to present it here, with only minor spelling corrections:

...At the end of the story, the boy is disappointed that Prince Humperdinck is not killed or, in any way that he can measure, punished for his deeds. In a traditional fairy tale he most likely would have been. His punishment may have even been one of great artistic irony. 
But the ending of THE PRINCESS BRIDE is actually truer to life. Westley is the bigger person. He chooses to let Humperdinck live, believing that the humiliation of his defeat and the undoing of his plans should be punishment enough. Noble and honorable. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Friday Night Lights (2004)
seen on TV @ AMC

It's hard for me to think of Friday Night Lights as a successful TV show or movie much of the time because I always think of the book before anything else. I remember buying the book, written by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, after reading an excerpt in Sports Illustrated (you know this was a long time ago if I was still reading SI). 

I've never been a huge football fan. I rooted for the Giants and Jets growing up, naturally, and I was excited when the Giants had their Super Bowl season in 1986. If there was any reason why I stopped following football, I suppose it was a result of when I stopped following baseball. After they cancelled the World Series, I guess you could say it killed my interest in sports in general.

New York sports fans love their pro football, no doubt, but when it comes to college and high school football, the relationship between a town and their team is different. I experienced this first-hand, of course, when I lived in Columbus, home of the Ohio State football Buckeyes. Actually, the "football" part is superfluous; though OSU has lots of other athletic teams, in Columbus, there's no doubt who you're referring to when you say the name Buckeyes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Switch is coming...

I've been thinking that I need a shakeup of some kind here at WSW. You may know this, but if you don't, this blog was always more about keeping me writing (and drawing, occasionally) than about any kind of deep study of films. As much as I enjoy them, they've always been the means to an end. Plus, I really feel like I need a break from following and writing about current movies. I've been doing it for what feels like so long that I think it might benefit me if I gained a little perspective and stepped back from them for a little while.

So with that in mind, this is what I have planned for next year...