Friday, May 29, 2015

FOL wins court battle w/Jersey City! UPDATED

UPDATE 5.30.15: From last night at the Loew's: Friends of the Loew's head Colin Egan tells the audience the good news. Yes, it's a crappy video, but there's nothing wrong with the audio. Yes, that's me woo-ing.


This is a win for the little guys, and no matter how the Jersey Journal chooses to spin it, this will only benefit the Loew's and Jersey City in the long-term - if Mayor Fulop works with FOL. Egan made it clear, both last night and in his FOL statement, that he's willing to let bygones be bygones, because what ultimately counts is the future of this grand, magnificent theater, that has the potential to be a marvelous entertainment hub for the tri-state area. We know that FOL's vision for the Loew's is as a non-profit institution that will serve the needs of the community in addition to bringing in the big-ticket concerts. We know that the non-profit model is one that has been proven to work in cities all across America. If Jersey City works with FOL, they can have the best of both worlds. If the theater's future matters to Mayor Fulop, he'll do what's best for it. He has no choice now.

I'll have more about last night when I write about the movie I saw, Sleeper, next week.

UPDATE: From Friends of the Loew's' official statement: They're ready to sit down with Mayor Stephen Fulop and work with him on a mutually beneficial plan that will improve the theater for everyone. Will post direct links tomorrow morning when I'm in front of my laptop again!

Via the Jersey Journal: Hudson County judge rules that the lease between Friends of the Loew's and Jersey City 'is a contract. The parties are bound by that contract.' FOL is in charge till February 2020.' I'm in Hoboken right now and will head down to the Loew's tonight for a movie, so I'll have more to follow. STAY TUNED.

New release roundup for May '15

Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is exactly what you expect it to be, but by the time you read this, you've probably seen it a half dozen times already, so you know this. I didn't expect Ultron's "lips" to move the way they do. The effect is kinda weird. In the comics, he just has this big wide screaming mouth, and you don't expect it to move because duh, he's a robot. Also, I didn't like the way Joss gave him the same brand of snark as everyone else. An actual comic book supervillain should talk like one. Hopefully he won't do the same thing to Thanos in the next movie. Loved Hawkeye's role in this film, liked the new heroes, as well as seeing War Machine and Falcon again, and while there were quite a few story elements that left me baffled (I'm told I should've watched Agents of SHIELD, but I shouldn't NEED to, dammit), spectacle wins out in the end, as it always does.

That's it. I wanted to see Tomorrowland, but the middling reviews turned me off to it, which is a shame because I like director Brad Bird and I want to see him do well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

William Powell

From what I've seen of him, William Powell was distinctive from other actors of the 30s in that he was a charmer, but his style of charm came with a measure of tough-talking swagger to it. Not unlike his character in My Man Godfrey, it was as if someone had taken him off the street and turned him into a "gentleman," but they couldn't completely scrape away all of the rough edges to him.

It's funny, but even though the bulk of his career was in comedy, I don't necessarily think of him as a comic actor. To me, he's more like an actor who did comedy, and I'm not sure why that is. These days, comic actors like Will Ferrell or Tina Fey tend to be more pigeon-holed in those roles than in the past, and when they step outside their comfort zones to do a Stranger Than Fiction or a Punch-Drunk Love, that's looked upon as unusual, as an anomaly. 

With Old Hollywood actors like Powell, however, it was different. They took the scripts they were given, and sometimes it was a comedy, like Manhattan Melodrama, or a drama, like The Great Ziegfeld. So maybe my perception of Powell has something to do with that.

Powell made a mind-boggling fourteen films with Myrna Loy, including the six Thin Man films and Ziegfeld, the Best Picture winner. I've talked before about the two of them. Screen pairings like theirs were probably much easier to pull off when actors were tied to a single studio, which would explain why we never see them anymore - at least, not as prolifically. Still, I can understand the appeal in them. It can be a comfort to see two actors you like making movies together. You have an idea of what to expect, even when they're playing different characters.

Before the Thin Man movies, Powell headlined another franchise, featuring him as the amateur sleuth from literature, Philo Vance. He made five of those. I watched a clip from the first of them, The Canary Murder Case from 1929 (which also featured Jean Arthur and Louise Brooks) online, and it struck me that making the transition from silent films to talkies must have been easy for him. He had a remarkable speaking voice. He had made a living playing heavies during the silent era, and Canary was supposed to have been a silent until it was reworked as a talkie.

Powell, with third wife Diana Lewis
For a time, Powell was married to Carole Lombard, and he also had an affair with Jean Harlow. Lombard was his second wife, and they only lasted two years together before divorcing amicably in 1933. (Lombard would go on to marry Clark Gable.) As for Harlow, Powell was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Kansas City, and while there, he lived a few blocks away from Harlow, though they wouldn't meet until they both became movie stars. 

In 1935, they met on the set of the film Reckless, and that's when their relationship began. They would star together in Libeled Lady the next year. When Harlow died in 1937, Powell took it really hard. He paid for her funeral and took a break from acting for awhile. He'd find love again, though, in his third wife Diana Lewis, with whom he stayed until his death in 1984.

Powell was a pleasant actor to watch. I like to think he was a good guy as well; I certainly hope so. He deserves a place up there with the Cary Grants and Fred Astaires of Old Hollywood.

Next: Tod Browning

Films with William Powell:
The Thin Man
Libeled Lady
Mister Roberts

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters

I just thought this was funny.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Village of the Damned (1960)

Village of the Damned (1960)
seen on TV @ TCM

For this post about Village of the Damned, I will speak in a British accent. What do you think? Is it convincing? I admit, I'm no Meryl Streep, but I don't think a British accent is too hard to pull off. You can't tell, can you? Okay, wait a minute, let me try something...




How about now? No? Well, I tried.

This was one I had wanted to see for a long time. I already knew the premise - demon-seed Aryan kids take over a town with their mental powers - but I wasn't entirely sure how scary it would be. I'd say it's more unsettling than outright scary. Whereas most horror movies these days depend on gore or other "shock" moments, Village relies more on tension and mystery, ramping them up little by little until the literally explosive finale. Do we ever find out what force creates the spooky kids? No. Do we need to? Not really. At least I didn't.

I like how this film uses misdirection to keep you on your toes. It begins with a completely different mystery - what has turned everyone and everything in the small British town "off," so to speak? - before introducing the spooky kids and their agenda. Also, George Sanders doesn't take a central role until maybe twenty minutes or so in the film. 

Addison DeWitt as a good guy? Sure, why not - though I kept expecting him to be the secret mastermind behind the spooky kids, or to at least double-cross somebody. Actually, he had a mighty long and productive career. Did you know he was the star of not one, but two film franchises? There was the Saint, back in the late 30s/early 40s; a kind of gentleman thief (perhaps you recall the Val Kilmer movie version), and there was also the Falcon, a detective, also from the early 40s.

Village is a brisk 77 minutes, and it packs quite a bit into the story, partly as the result of implicated actions; the screenplay isn't afraid to let you add two and two on your own. There's a lot of talk, but it's never boring, and while the premise is unusual, to say the least, everything is played straight. You never doubt what's going on. If you think British horror is just Hammer films, check this one out, too (although it was actually made at MGM).

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ethel Waters

I wonder how well Ethel Waters is remembered today by most people. As a Hollywood actress, I'm guessing she's probably not as well known as, say, Hattie McDaniel or Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge, and as a blues/jazz singer, she may not be as well-remembered as Etta James or Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald.

Hers was certainly not a name I remember from my early childhood, which was steeped in soul, country and disco from the 50s, 60s and 70s. She wasn't someone I learned about during Black History Month. Her songs, or her versions of songs, haven't been used in more recent movies or TV shows or commercials. And no one's made a movie about her (yet).

With so many Hollywood stories over the generations, it's inevitable that even some of the better ones may fall through the cracks as time progresses, but if you're unfamiliar with the history of Waters, as I was, check out what she did in her lifetime: she was the second black actor, male or female, to get Oscar-nominated (after McDaniel, of course); she was the first black woman to get Emmy-nominated; she was the first black woman to star in both a TV series and a radio series; she was a three-time inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame; she's represented in the Library of Congress; she's in both the Christian Music and the Gospel Music Halls of Fame, and best of all - she's on a stamp!

Not bad for a Philadelphia slum child who was born as the product of a rape. Sadly, it's true: her mother, Louise Anderson, was raped by a man when she was approximately thirteen or so, and gave birth to his child in 1896. Waters got her professional start as a musician in Baltimore after being talked into singing at a Philly nightclub on her seventeenth birthday and blowing the crowd away. From there, it was on to the black vaudeville circuit, and then the Harlem nightclubs, where in 1933, she sang perhaps her signature song, "Stormy Weather," for the first time, at the Cotton Club.

Her voice was a little lower than Holiday's, yet it had much of that same depth of feeling. She has written that she "sang 'Stormy Weather' from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." For those who only know her as an older woman, you need to check out this clip of her from a 1929 movie called On With The Show, which was filmed in color, but only black-and-white copies have survived. It gives an impression of what she must have been like on vaudeville. She had flair and pizzazz to match - and such a lovely smile as well!

As an actress, I remember being impressed with her from the first time I saw her, in Pinky. Not knowing anything about her at the time, I thought hers was a strong and commanding presence. Hers wasn't a token role, either; she was crucial to the plot. She earned her Oscar nomination for sure. (Her co-star Ethel Barrymore was also nominated, but both lost to someone named Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men.)

Then I saw Waters in Cabin in the Sky, and it was like she was a different actress altogether. She was the good girl to Lena Horne's bad girl, but Waters had more than a touch of glamour to her, she sung beautifully, and she was pretty! She had originated the role of Petunia on Broadway (where she was the highest-paid performer at one point!) and revised it for the movie version, which explains her affinity for the role.

So after conquering vaudeville, radio, Broadway and film, Waters was ready for television. Beulah was based on a radio character from the 40s that appeared in various incarnations of what was more or less the same show. At one point McDaniel, post-Oscar, inhabited the role. ABC picked it up for television in 1950, and cast Waters. She played - big surprise - a maid for a white family (over 30 years before Nell Carter and Gimme a Break!), but Waters thought the show was racist and quit after one season.

She got her Emmy nomination for appearing in the series Route 66 in 1961. A dramatic show about a couple of guys just driving around the country for no particular reason, Waters plays a dying jazz singer who wants to see her old bandmates one last time. It's on YouTube; haven't seen it yet, but the IMDB reviews seem positive.

Waters found religion later in life and toured with Billy Graham. She wrote an autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow, which was adapted for the stage. She died in 1980, and though she was approved to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it hasn't been funded yet. (What, you thought they just bestowed those things out of kindness?) And if she had a rep for having a diva attitude, well, she wouldn't have been the first by any means. Learning about her has been extremely enlightening for me, and I hope it was for you too, because she was a real trailblazer.

Next: William Powell

Films with Ethel Waters:
Cabin in the Sky

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean

Monday, May 18, 2015

Five more movie/TV characters that deserve statues

So I spent last Friday in Philadelphia (traveling by BUS, permit me to point out), hanging out with friends, and while I was there, I decided to visit some of the prominent movie-related landmarks around the City of Brotherly Love. I was walking, so I didn't get to see as many as I had hoped, but I saw some: the church that was in The Sixth Sense, and the deli where Denzel Washington ate in Philadelphia. I wanted to find Eddie Murphy's street corner from Trading Places, but I didn't have time.

The biggest movie landmark in Philly, however, was one I couldn't pass up: the Rocky statue. Unfortunately, it's no longer at the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but at least it's nearby. A homeless guy took the accompanying photo of Yours Truly with the statue; I think he was offering his services to everybody gathered around it. I made sure to give him some change. I saw lots of different people run up the stairs: tourists, little kids, even ordinary joggers, but there were way too many of those stairs for me to try it. By the side, there were a couple of dudes selling Rocky T-shirts.

Naturally, this experience made me think of other statues of movie and TV characters. Here in New York, for example, we have the Ralph Kramden Honeymooners statue, in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Here's a bigger list, which includes the Robocop statue in Detroit and the controversial Lucy Ricardo one in upstate New York. I think there are more that could be made, don't you? Here's five worthy candidates from the big and small screens and places for these fantasy statues to go:

- Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher. The Murder She Wrote character traveled all over the country, but her home was the fictional New England town of Cabot Cove, Maine, which was inspired by the actual town of Kennebunkport, Maine, so if a statue of her should go anywhere, it should go there. (Mendocino, California was where exterior shots of Cabot Cove were actually shot.) I wasn't what you'd call a regular viewer of the show, but I did watch it from time to time, and I don't think enough good things can be written about Lansbury, an inspiration to actors everywhere, still going strong as she closes in on age 90 (wow!). I picture a Jessica Fletcher statue as being her sitting down in front of her typewriter, pounding away on her latest novel.

- Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. It would have to go in San Francisco, of course, perhaps down by Fisherman's Wharf. He would have to be dressed in his fedora and trenchcoat, holding the Maltese Falcon in front of him. The best time to view it would be at night, with the fog rolling in off the Bay, and a boat or two behind him. I'm kinda surprised no one has proposed this already, to be honest. It's unfortunate that the film didn't take advantage of any exterior location shots of SF, but that sort of thing wouldn't become commonplace in Hollywood movies for another decade or so. (Maybe a Vertigo statue of Stewart and Novak could go underneath the Golden Gate Bridge?)

- Richard Roundtree as Shaft. Times Square should be the most appropriate location for a statue of the private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks, evoking the memorable opening credits - perhaps you could put him next to the subway entrance on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, as if he were just leaving the A train, about to cross the street against the light and flip off the taxi driver who almost hits him. The problem with that, though, is Shaft simply does not belong in the Disney-fied, tourist-y, safe(r) and clean(er) Times Square of 2015. Actually, one could argue he doesn't belong in the New York of 2015, either, come to think of it. Still, if Times Square is out, then Harlem it is, near the Apollo Theater, and maybe that's more appropriate.

- Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat. I actually saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few months ago, at the Loew's Jersey City, but I never wrote about it. Anyway, if any actress deserves a statue, it's Liz, and her in that slinky white negligee, spread out on that brass bed would make for the perfect tableau. Perhaps it could go in Tennessee Williams' hometown of Columbus, Mississippi?

- Robert Preston as Harold Hill. The hat, raised in greeting. The bow tie. The checkered suit. The suitcase with his name on it. Add it up and you would have one terrific statue of one of the most memorable musical characters of all time, and where else can it possibly go but Mason City, Iowa, birthplace of Music Man creator Meredith Wilson and often nicknamed River City?

Feel free to add to the list if you like.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ray Bradbury and vintage science fiction films

Guest post
by Maria Ramos

Few science fiction authors have had the influence on the genre that Ray Bradbury has. His penchant for the strange and mysterious, coupled with evocative, lyrical prose, made his works readily accessible for adaptation into television shows and movies. Bradbury felt acutely the fears and anxieties that many Americans experienced during the Cold War and this is reflected in many of his works. Themes of identity and persecution tied directly to McCarthyism and the Red Scare, while outright condemnations of atomic testing and nuclear war in his stories were indicative of the public unease that our leaders would cause devastation to our planet.

The one-eyed alien from
It Came From Outer Space
It Came From Outer Space (1953), based on Bradbury's story treatment, touched on the fear of Communism by telling a story of clandestine alien beings among us. The inability to discern who was an alien and who was not was a powerful metaphor for the paranoia that fueled the Red Scare. The premise carried such weight that this theme also provided the basis for the popular film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) just a couple of years later.

Anxiety over rapidly advancing technology was at the center of Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric," a short story about children who rebel against an android that has been programmed to care for them. The story was made into a highly regarded episode of The Twilight Zone, and examined the fundamental mistrust of automation and its potential to deprive able bodied Americans of jobs.

"The Fog Horn" followed a monster lured from the deep by the sound of a horn projected from a coastal lighthouse. The story was made into the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which reimagined the monster's origin as the product of atomic testing in order to tap into public unease surrounding nuclear war after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese monster classic Godzilla (1954) would utilize an almost identical premise the following year.

Ray Harryhausen brought to life
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
The ideas and themes Bradbury explored can be seen in other popular science fiction films from the same era. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) also deals with the arrival of an alien being on Earth who is greeted with fear and mistrust. The Charlton Heston classic Planet of the Apes (1968) taps into similar anxieties, working as a veiled metaphor for the suppression of American pride during a time when the unpopular Vietnam War was killing American troops by the thousands. Logan's Run (1967) does a fantastic job presenting the perils of living in a futuristic society where technology has become too advanced for its own good, and like the classic Soylent Green (1973), shows a future where the media is heavily propagandized and manipulated by those in power. Both films reflected a general mistrust of government.

Josephine Hutchinson and Veronica Cartwright in
The Twilight Zone's "I Sing the Body Electric"
As the decades have gone by, it is easy to see where fundamental shifts in the public consciousness occurred. During Bradbury's most active period the focus was largely on simple cautionary parables about free speech and man's reach exceeding his grasp. As the years went on, technology and the mass media became more prominent in science fiction film making, but the same themes of mistrust, hidden tyranny and abuse of power still roiled underneath. Mass anxiety still existed, and the films of the 1970's still mined the inexhaustible vein of paranoia, only the focus became the Vietnam War rather than the Cold War. Each film deals at a fundamental level with fear of the unknown, whether that unknown be new technology, the inner workings of the media and government, or the true intentions of people we share the planet with.

These fears continue to be explored in contemporary science fiction, in films such as The Matrix (1999) and Ex Machina (2015). The many faceted subjects that Bradbury tackled in his extensive and thoughtful works formed the basis for all the science fiction cinema that followed. Next time you sit down to check out the latest technological thriller or futuristic think piece, be sure to say a quick thanks to Ray Bradbury.

Maria Ramos is a freelance writer interested in comic books, baking, horror films, and anything science fiction. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois. In her spare time, she enjoys cycling, gardening, and anything that gets her outside.  She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy. You can follow her on Twitter @MariaRamos1889.