Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Math was probably as intimidating to me as it was to most people in high school. I remember taking pre-Calculus in my freshman year because I actually did fairly well in math in junior high. This, however, was entirely different. I don't remember a thing I learned in the class. I struggled with it the entire semester. I don't know how I passed with a 65 but I did, and once I was done, I never wanted to see it again. To this day, I don't know why I had to take that class.

When I was an upperclassman, I had a scheduling snafu one semester and I was stuck in a class called Computer Math. It might have been the first class in which I used a computer (it was probably a Mac), but it was a remedial course. I clearly didn't belong, but as much as I tried, I couldn't get out, so I made the best of it. The teacher knew I didn't belong there, too, and was sympathetic. There was even a cute girl I helped out within the class. All things considered, I didn't have too bad a time there.

Basic math is easy once you grasp it, but the really tough stuff, the material involving square roots and fractions and letters, well, that requires an exceptional level of intelligence. I mean, I have to have a chart taped to the inside of my kitchen cabinet to remind me of measurements and half-measurements. There's no way I could nail down all those fancy algebraic equations.

For a long time, those who can were mocked as nerds. That's changing, though; we're starting to see more stories, across multiple media, in which that kind of intelligence is well-regarded, even glamorized, to an extent.

Hidden Figures is the latest example, and it is particularly noteworthy because it involves black people, black women, to be precise. It's the true story of a trio of mathematicians who were instrumental in helping put the late John Glenn into outer space during the height of the Cold War.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are not presented here as what you might call "nerds." The movie, in fact, goes to great lengths to present them as ordinary women in spite of their great skill with numbers, albeit women who had to live with institutional racism on a daily basis, like all black Americans in the early 60s.

The whole nerd stereotype almost never included black people when I was growing up, except perhaps for Urkel from Family Matters. That never bothered me back then. Nerds were uncool, after all. During my years in the comics industry, I met a number of black creators and fans who probably wouldn't object to the term now, not because they're exceptionally intelligent, but because of a change in the zeitgeist.

As a result, though, I became a little more aware whenever I saw an above-average smart black person in the movies, especially when race wasn't a factor. The Martian had one, for a recent example. Joe Morton in Terminator 2 is another one. The character Theo in Die Hard is yet another. In addition, someone like Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a surprisingly popular real-life figure.

As a movie, Figures was pretty conventional and by-the-numbers. It was easy to figure out what would happen and how, and once again this was a movie in which the editor had way too much of a free hand. That doesn't matter as much, though, as the subject. Knowing these super-smart black women existed, and made a difference, is more important. Now they, too, are part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Vija came out to Kew Gardens in the snow to see this with me, although we had gotten all the white stuff the previous day, a Saturday. By Sunday, the roads had been cleared pretty good and the trains had no abnormal delays (relatively speaking, of course). The Kew wasn't nearly as crowded as it was the last time I went there for a Sunday matinee, to see Manchester by the Sea, but by the time Figures ended, the lobby was much busier, so I guess the weather wasn't much of a deterrent.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Made For Each Other

The Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of the actress, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

Made For Each Other
YouTube viewing

As I watched Made For Each Other, I couldn't help drawing comparisons to Penny Serenade, which I saw weeks ago. They're both ordinary, down-to-earth tales of married couples trying to start families and sustain their relationships amidst the travails of pre-war life. Compared to modern movies, it's surprising to see such care and detail applied to stories like these without some kind of "hook" attached - and I don't even mean magic or aliens or superpowers; more like the wacky best friend, or the wacky scheme that grows out of control.

There are a few important structural differences. Unlike Penny, Made forgoes the courtship period between Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard and begins with the two of them already married, after an unusually brief whirlwind acquaintance. Made places a greater emphasis on outside pressures, in the form of Stewart's boss, Charles Coburn, and his mother, Lucille Watson (no relation), threatening the stability of the marriage. The former doesn't really appreciate Stewart and the latter doesn't really appreciate Lombard.

Both films, though, emphasize long-term career issues for the husbands and domestic difficulties for the wives. I found it interesting that Lombard gives up her career goals to become a wife and mother without any complaints. They could've used the extra income later on when they have money problems.

Speaking of which: Lombard's a housewife and Watson lives with them, yet Stewart throws away dough on a maid? Several, in succession, in fact? No wonder they have money problems! At first, I thought they were upper-class because of Watson's proper enunciation and bearing, but they weren't. Poor acting choice there.

Starting a family is a big deal in both films, but Penny places a greater emphasis on this plot point. For Cary Grant & Irene Dunne, the success or failure of their marriage is directly tied to their ability to have and raise a child. This is not nearly as true in Made; having a child feels more like a natural outgrowth of events as they progress.

Both films place the child in jeopardy (spoilers to follow). In Penny, the child gets sick and dies off-screen. Her death is not as important as Grant & Dunne's reaction to same. In Made, the child's sickness is played for MAXIMUM GRIEF: the shocking discovery; the tears, Lombard's, anyway - Stewart's tears are implied but not shown, because, y'know, he's a man (in contrast to Grant's "Please let me keep my baby" scene in Penny); the desperate search for a cure; even the daring cross-country plane trip through inclement weather with the serum that'll save Junior - I mean, it's shameless how this film milks the suspense down to the wire.

Sociologically, these films, and others from around the same period such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and the Andy Hardy moviesrepresent detailed glimpses of the kind of life Americans aspired to before World War 2 flipped the script. No mention is made of the Depression in either Penny or Made; the hard times the characters suffer have no relation to the national economic conditions, or to the slowly-building European conflict. In that sense, these films are idealized, but it was probably as comforting to audiences of the day as your average MGM musical.

While I can't say I loved either movie that much, I think I give the very slight edge to Penny. Grant & Dunne's relationship seemed a touch more complex than that of Stewart & Lombard. Plus, I liked the use of music as a storytelling device. Made seemed more straightforward by comparison.

Other films by Carole Lombard:
Nothing Sacred
To Be or Not To Be

Saturday, January 14, 2017


seen @ AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

The day I left my apartment to go see Silence, a woman got on the elevator with me. I had never seen her before. It was a cold day, and we were both bundled up pretty good. For no reason I can think of, she said, "It can't be too bad out there." I shook my head, agreeing with her, not wanting to get into an idle chat about the weather. Then she said something like, "Jesus never gives us more than we can handle," which led to a few more statements about how Jesus is great and so forth.

She looked at me as if expecting me to agree, but of course I would do no such thing. I said nothing. Too many times in the past, I had let myself get drawn into theological debates with Jesus freaks. They always end up the same way; at an impasse. The worst part is, I didn't say or do anything that would prompt her to start proselytizing. Then again, people like her rarely need a reason.

Near the subway, there were more like her. Most of the time, the religious types I see in this part of town fall into one of three categories: the loud, militant black Jews; the quieter, yet ubiquitous Jehovah's Witnesses; and the solitary, fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumpers. This fourth group appears every now and then. They set up booths called "prayer stations," they dress in bright red vests, and almost without exception, they're white. The sight of them in a black neighborhood gives off an impression not unlike that of 19th-century missionaries in Africa, saving the heathen darkies for Jesus while bringing malaria and other brand new diseases.

I realize these people see it as their duty, their holy calling, to spread the word of God. In a fair world, they would realize not everyone is interested in what they have to say; that some people would not only prefer to be left alone by them, but their very presence is resented. As long as these people believe they're "right" and everyone else is "wrong," however, they're not likely to change.

It was in such a frame of mind that I saw Martin Scorsese's new movie, which I went into completely ignorant of what it was about. I had decided I'd pick one movie this season which I'd see with no advance knowledge. I chose Silence. All I knew was Scorsese had made it, which is certainly enough of an enticement on its own. Whatever he makes is almost always worth a look.

So imagine my surprise when I realized the film continued the thematic path I seemed to be on that day. Andrew Garfield is a 17th-century Portuguese priest. He and fellow priest Adam Driver travel to Japan to search for their missing mentor, Liam Neeson, who has appeared to have turned on the faith. They encounter a number of converted natives, but they also get heavy resistance to Catholicism, and they suffer persecution for their faith.

It was difficult for me to sympathize with Garfield's character. I probably wouldn't have in other circumstances, but because of the woman in the elevator, I was even more predisposed to not care too much whether or not Garfield found other Catholics in Japan. Nothing justifies the violence inflicted on him and others like him, but I found myself understanding, at least, why it happened. Indeed, Garfield struck me as incredibly naïve to the reality of his surroundings. Neeson sets Garfield straight once they meet, and soon he's faced with the same choice Neeson faced.

Absolution is a recurring theme in the movie. One character sees the act as a kind of Get Out of Jail Free Card: yes, he did this bad thing, but if Garfield forgives him, he figures, everything will be okay. Then he does the bad thing again and restarts the cycle. If the concept of sin hadn't been introduced to his culture to begin with - something they never asked for - chances are he might not have suffered as much as he does throughout the movie, but no one brings that up.

I still found Silence thought-provoking. I could see why the director of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun would be drawn to this material, based on a novel Scorsese had been wanting to adapt ever since he made Temptation.

If I had known all about Silence beforehand, would I have gone to see it when I did? Eh... maybe not. I might have taken my time, gone to see other movies first, maybe even waited to see if it got any Oscar love (it probably will). Scorsese's name alone was enough to get me to see this movie. That's a powerful thing. It shouldn't be taken for granted.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2016

So the most eagerly awaited movie-going moment of the year for me - the grand opening of the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn - turned out to be less than I had hoped due to the high cost of the theater, at least in comparison to its Yonkers location. I'd be willing to go back there, but it would have to be for something super-special, not on a semi-regular basis as I had hoped. Still, all movie lovers should see a movie at the Alamo at least once. I have no problem recommending it to the uninitiated. Just be prepared to unload some dough.

At any rate, I still had some wonderful moments seeing movies at other venues this year. And here are the best:

5. Spaceballs at Syndicated Bar. Other venues are starting to replicate the Alamo experience, and Syndicated, also in Brooklyn, is one of them. It's a repertory house and not a first-run, but I enjoyed their food and drink, their seats are very comfortable, and they're a whole lot cheaper. Seeing a great movie like Spaceballs with my friend Alicia was the icing on the cake. I hope to go back there this year.

4. Lust for Life on video at Vija's place. If for no other reason than seeing her cat and Chris' dog interact, which was pretty funny. It would've been nicer to have had a DVD that didn't act up, too, but the company and the food more than made up for that. Also, Vija didn't find the DVD at first. I had told her that was okay, I'd watch something else, but she kept on looking until she found an available copy. This is why she has been my friend for over twenty years. I'm so lucky to have her in my life.

3. Nosferatu/Dracula's Daughter at the Loews Jersey City. With Aurora, no less! Halloween at the Loews is always a special time. This wasn't on October 31 exactly, but it was close enough for another huge crowd to turn out for this sweet vampire twin bill.

2. Run Lola Run at Prospect Park. In case it wasn't apparent, none of the versions of the story I told about seeing this movie at Celebrate Brooklyn was 100% accurate. I was aping the storytelling style of the movie itself. The stuff about the music - the musical guest, Joan as Police Woman, and the band live-scoring the film, The Bays - that was true. Most of the time, CB makes excellent choices with the films they show, and this was no exception.

1. Star Trek Beyond in New Paltz with Bibi & Eric. Yeah, this is a pretty easy choice. A Trek movie, during the 50th anniversary year, in a slightly peculiar-shaped theater, outside of NYC, with two of my favorite people in the world. It simply does not get any better than this. And I got to hang out with them three times last year! Highly unusual for us. What luck!

2015 top five
2014 top five
2013 top five
2012 top five
2011 top five

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon is coming, time-wise!

I can't say enough good things about Jack Lemmon. He was what every good actor should be: versatile. Whether he did comedy or drama, as the lead or part of a team, in his youth or as an old man, you always believed him in whatever he did. In his best roles, he had an everyman charm that made him relatable, but he could be a right bastard at times, too. His influence can be seen in a number of today's best actors.

It's not his birthday. It's not the anniversary of his death or his first Hollywood role or anything like that. I just wanna do a blogathon for him. It's that simple. I'm teaming up with my pal from south of the equator, Le, on this one, and we hope you'll join us too.

March 30-31 is the time. Anything related to the life and career of Jack Lemmon goes. Duplicates are AOK. I'm gonna write about The Out-of-Towners, while Le will discuss the remake of 12 Angry Men. If you're game, let us know in the comments and we'll see you then!

Monday, January 9, 2017

New year's links

I don't have too much more to add to the hosannas written for Carrie Fisher. There were other iconic female characters in sci-fi/fantasy film: Maria in Metropolis, the bride of Frankenstein, Fay Wray in King Kong. Princess Leia, though, was an undisputed hero in her own right, one central to the plot, one who made things happen. Remember the moment when, in a fit of frustration, she grabs Luke's blaster and starts shooting the Stormtroopers herself? I have no doubt that scene inspired a generation of girls. Fisher was open about her mental health issues and turned them into comedy, which eventually became a hit movie. That took guts.

As for Debbie Reynolds - and what are the odds of a mother and daughter dying on back-to-back days? - I'm afraid I have even less to say. I don't really know her work other than Singin' in the Rain, which, of course, is an all-timer. She was marvelous in that film.

On to brighter things. I had the best New Year's Eve in years! I went to an orchestral concert held in a Manhattan church to hear my pal Sandi sing with a chorus. She's a classically trained soprano vox. Even though she had been sick as a dog for a couple of weeks, she healed just enough to perform that night. She has a dynamite voice, too. The concert even had a movie connection: among the selections performed were pieces from composers James Newton Howard and Aaron Copland.

Afterwards, I hung out with Sandi and some of her choral friends at a nearby bar and grill, where we awaited 2017. I had met some of her friends before, but I got along pleasantly with everyone despite being the youngest person there.

Sandi actually bought party hats, horns and noisemakers for the occasion, which she cheerily handed out to everyone in our group. The hats didn't fit me, so I had to settle for a "Happy New Year" tiara which kept falling off. I had a horn, though! Considering how last-minute this whole affair was - Sandi didn't decide to attend the concert until the night before, I think, on account of how sick she had been - it turned out great.

No themes for the blog this year. After two in a row, I saw no real need to continue the pattern. Six years of blogging and I still feel like I'm searching for the right direction. All I know for sure is what I don't want: to read like one more blog that critically analyzes movies. If that means going in all different directions, trying different things to see what sticks, well, so be it. I don't know any other way to approach blogging.

More new releases this month, plus some unfinished business from last year, and a blogathon post. A new all-time record for monthly pageviews was set last month, breaking a 4 1/2-year-old record, so thank you big time for that.

Your links:

Raquel loved La La Land.

FlickChick loved La La Land too, though with a small caveat.

Ivan rocks out with Chuck Berry and Alan Freed.

Fritzi can't understand the hate for The Artist.

Pam works out with Debbie Reynolds.

Finally, not movie-related but worth reading: if 2016 got you down, and if 2017 looks hopeless, Le has some advice for you. And speaking of whom, come back tomorrow for a special announcement from the two of us...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

I've spent the past three years struggling to write a novel about baseball. It really has been a struggle, too. Some days I think it's brilliant, other days I think it's a complete waste of time. I can write the stuff with pitching and batting and home runs and strikeouts, but tying it all to real, believable people, who laugh and cry and are virtuous and vicious, that's another story. I've written for much of my life, in one form or another, yet I feel like I don't know a thing about storytelling: the ability to create a narrative and sustain it, to find the ups and downs of human behavior and to end someplace different than where I began. Maybe I don't.

I chose baseball because I grew up with it, because I have strong feelings about it still, all these years later, even when I think I've outgrown it and it doesn't speak to me anymore. I chose it because I still stop and watch kids playing with aluminum bats on a neighborhood field, or softball teams from rival midtown businesses going at it in Central Park. I can't help but watch. It's my hope I can convey my feelings for the game, good and bad, within my novel. My writing group seems to think I'm on the right track, at the very least.

Then I see a movie like Fences and I'm ready to burn my manuscript. To call it a sports movie isn't really accurate; for all the talk of baseball (and football), the closest we come to it are passing shots of kids playing stickball in the street that have nothing to do with the story directly. 

Mostly, baseball is used as a metaphor to express the life and worldview of Denzel Washington's character Troy, a former Negro League player who never had the chance to cross over into Major League Baseball. Troy is a larger-than-life figure; a hard man, set in his ways, one who loves openly and freely, yet at the heart of him is a secret. Its revelation, as you might imagine, changes everything.

August Wilson's award-winning play is one part A Raisin in the Sun, one part Death of a Salesman. Like my novel, there's a family with issues, but seeing this story makes me believe I could push my characters' conflicts harder. A lot harder. See, as a writer, if you spend enough time with your characters, you start to like them. You want to protect them from harm. 

Like Troy says to his younger son, though, there's no law saying I have to like them. I do, however, have to be truthful to them, even if it means taking them places I don't want them to go. This movie reminded me of that. There are uncomfortable moments and harsh moments and WTF moments, but they all make for a better story, a more truthful story. That's something I've gotta try to remember with my novel.

One review I read thought Denzel might have given the best self-directed performance in film history. That got me thinking about which others could fall into that category: Chaplin in Modern Times; Welles in Kane; Olivier in Hamlet; Woody in Annie Hall; Costner in Dances with Wolves and Gibson in Braveheart. I think you'll agree those are all pretty monumental.

I can't imagine how hard it must be to not only direct yourself in a movie, but to do it in one where you're on the screen most, if not all, of the time. Directing requires a hyper-awareness of so many things at once: the film's tone; how little or how much you're getting out of the actors; the light, especially if you're outdoors; any potential distractions; scene continuity; the list goes on. Now throw your own performance, your interaction with the rest of the cast and whether you yourself are up to snuff, on top of all that. Is it any wonder Hitchcock stuck to cameos?

This is Denzel's third time in the director's chair, and in each of his films, he has played the starring role. Seeing actors direct themselves is no longer a novelty, but I think we've taken for granted how difficult it has got to be. 

In Fences, Denzel made it look easy. Yes, he performed the play on Broadway (and won the Tony for it), so he knows Troy inside out by now. Knowing how big this film had the potential to become, though, and is, he raised his game to another level - as if it wasn't high enough to begin with! 

Working once again with Viola Davis (someone get her a box of Kleenex already! She's always running her nose in movies), who appeared in the play with Denzel (and also won the Tony), must have been a big help. The rest of the cast is great, and if the film's stage origins are obvious, that's hardly a hindrance. This may be one for the ages.

I saw Fences on Monday, the 26th, the "observance" of Christmas Day, so it was like a holiday. The late afternoon show I had planned to attend at the Cinemart was sold out! Hadda get the next one. Again, though, it means the neighborhood supports this place. Given that the Cinemart has been on the comeback trail for the past couple of years, it's really good to see. On the down side, though, Assassin's Creed was playing next door and it was LOUD.

The audience, from what I briefly saw of it, was a mixture of black and white, but the black folks made their presence known, if you follow me. There were more than a few oh-my-gods and is-he-seriouses, and some you-go-girl-type applause in a key scene with Davis.

I just had to laugh. It had been awhile since I had seen a movie with a vocal audience of any kind, black or white. I admit, sometimes I miss it. Then again, several cell phones went off during the movie, so maybe I don't miss it that much!