Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

The death of British pop singer Amy Winehouse in 2011 didn't really register with me at the time because I barely knew her. I knew the song "Rehab," of course, but I wasn't aware that she was considered a superstar, especially in the UK. And I certainly didn't know how deep her personal problems ran. (The cultural rock I live under is quite comfortable, thank you. It keeps out the rain.)

We know the multiple Grammy-winner had problems with drugs and alcohol. She admitted to also having problems with depression. In that, she was hardly unique among musicians. Her story is all the more tragic, though, because she achieved fame and fortune at such a young age, and for whatever reasons, was ill equipped to cope with it.

One suspects that young women may have it harder: Rihanna, Brittney Spears, and Whitney Houston are only a few recent examples of women musicians whose drama and controversy in their personal lives have generated at least as much attention as their records. Part of it may be the result of all that success so soon in life. Part of it may have to do with the unrealistic expectations of glamor and hyper-sexuality we've come to expect from young women pop stars. Part of it may simply be bad choices, which all of us are guilty of sooner or later.

Beyond the Lights attempts, as its title suggests, to peel back the layer of glitz and find the humanity within one such pop star that rarely gets exposed on Entertainment Tonight or Perez Hilton. An attempted suicide by up-and-coming R&B/hip hop sensation Noni - a sort-of hybrid of Winehouse and Rihanna - is thwarted by a cop. She lies about the incident to the media, which rubs the cop the wrong way, especially when he hopes to use the incident to launch a political career. Still, they form an unlikely romantic relationship over time, which leads to further complications.

Last week, I talked about romantic movies and how the greats of the past were able to use plot obstacles in a way that modern movies either can't or are unwilling to do anymore. The lie Noni tells is the chief obstacle here, and although it doesn't stop her and Kaz, the cop, from being together, it still looms over them and affects their actions. In addition, there's Noni's stage mother, who goes to great lengths to make her daughter a star, but keeps her under her thumb, to a certain degree. These are good examples of obstacles used by a modern movie, and they're pertinent to this kind of story, in which fame and public imagery are crucial to both of the central characters' lives.

I feel about Lights the same way I felt about Enough Said last year and Obvious Child this year: a modern romantic movie that took me by surprise and completely drew me into the story, and was neither condescending nor patronizing. All three movies were written and directed by women; in this case, it was Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also did Love and Basketball (a movie I missed the first time but will definitely look for now). I gotta admit, movies like these are a very welcome response to the naysayers who claim that romance is dead in Hollywood.

It was wonderful to see old favorites Minnie Driver and Danny Glover in Lights, and while male lead Nate Parker didn't bowl me over, he did his job. But I think it's safe to say that this movie should put Gugu Mbatha-Raw over the top and firmly establish her as a star to be reckoned with. Between this and Belle, she's had a dynamite year, and as good as she was in that, she's even better in this. Yes, she does her own singing, and I'd say she's good enough to cut a record.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Reputation

My Reputation
seen on TV @ TCM

There's been a great deal of discussion over the past few years about the decline of the romantic film, whether comedy or drama. (Earlier this week, The Dissolve was the latest film site to have a discussion about it.) When I addressed the matter a couple of years ago, I talked about how many of the industry's biggest leading men have been reluctant to appear in romantic movies (comedies in particular), a problem that didn't exist to anywhere near the same degree back in the studio-era of Hollywood, but I also alluded to the belief that modern living provides fewer obstacles to keep potential couples separate.

One major obstacle that succeeded in romance movies back in the day was war, something I noticed as I watched My Reputation yesterday. There's no doubt about when this is supposed to take place: Barbara Stanywck mentions things like planting a Victory Garden and serving in the Red Cross. (And yet this was released in 1946!)

For all of the movies that Hollywood made that depicted the fighting going on overseas, as well as propaganda films that supported the war effort, movies like these that showed the impact WW2 had on the homefront are equally compelling as historical artifacts. The beauty of it is that no special attention is given to details like these; they're simply part of the background of a wartime movie.

George Brent's character is a major in the army, and the romantic plot he shares with Stanwyck is contingent on his availability. He has a limited amount of time with her because eventually, he has to go where the army sends him, when they send him, and that adds a great deal of urgency to the story. 

Class was another romantic obstacle. Stanywck also has to deal with gossiping friends (and her shrewish mother) who claim she's out on the prowl too soon after the death of her husband. While class doesn't figure in her relationship with Brent, it's definitely a factor in her conflict with her upper-middle-class, suburban pals. Early in the film, for example, her mom keeps insisting that Stany wear black in mourning, because it's something "our kind of people" do, or words to that effect. There's a clear indication that by dating again, so soon, Stany's violating an unwritten social code of conduct that her peers live by.

It's true, that these days, social mores are less of a big deal between groups of friends. I don't think of my friends as having the exact same set of social standards as me. We may share lots of things in common: movies, comics, music, what have you, but I feel pretty confident in saying that when it comes to public behavior, we don't think alike. But then again, I'm not upper-middle-class, and none of my friends are either. It's different when you've got money and live affluently. 

Yet Hollywood made movies like these - that is, movies from the perspective of high society - often, and we plebes were supposed to be able to relate to people like Stany's character. Expectations from movies are different now because society's different. We don't necessarily have to look at life from the angle of the well-to-do anymore.

So yeah, obstacles like these either don't exist anymore or can't be portrayed in the same way when it comes to romance, but I like to think that it doesn't mean that romance is dead in the movies. Writers just need to be smarter about how they approach the subject.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
seen on TV @ TCM

I first saw Sunrise in my college film history class way back when. I don't recall what my reaction was. It was without a doubt one of the very first times I had seen a silent movie, for what it's worth. As a movie, it's good, if somewhat melodramatic (to say the least). I like how it's almost entirely reliant on the visuals. There are few title cards, and the ones it has are used in unusual ways. There is, of course, the way the line "Couldn't she get drowned?" is animated to look like it's going down a drain, but there's also the way some cards fade into and out of a flashback. The cards are a more integral part of the movie and not merely what comic book maestro Will Eisner might've called a desperation device (that's what he called word balloons).

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor completely sell this movie with their faces, not just because it's silent, but because within the context of the film itself, the dialogue is sparse. It's not like in most silents where you can clearly see the actors' lips moving even though you can't hear what they're saying. There's not a whole lot of that either, which makes me think director FW Murnau worked overtime to get the actors to express what he wanted them to express. 

Silent film acting tended to be big and over the top so that the emotions and the situations could be better understood by the audience, but there's less of that here. There's a greater emphasis on interior thoughts. Murnau helps sell it even further by using tricks like superimpositions. When O'Brien contemplates going through with his scheme of killing Gaynor, we see Margaret Livingston, his would-be lover, as a ghostly impression, hovering over him, seeming to clutch him close and tempt him. For 1927, it's a brilliant trick and it adds to the psychological depth.

That said, it's not a perfect movie. Gaynor's character is a total crybaby wimp who is passive to the point of helplessness; after awhile, you kinda root for O'Brien to just kill her already. Also, they reconcile way too early in the film; there's a long second-act stretch where nothing of great importance happens other than seeing the two of them all lovey-dovey. Well, O'Brien captures a runaway drunken pig, but that's about it.

Sunrise has the unusual distinction of winning the 1929 Oscar for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, which was distinct from the actual Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture, as they called it then) winner that year, Wings. It was the first ever Oscar ceremony, and at the time the rationale was that both categories were equally important, but slightly different. Still, they dropped the "Unique and Artistic" category after Year One.

Having seen both films, I gotta say that they both seem pretty unique and artistic. The flying sequences in Wings were groundbreaking and spectacular, and lest we forget, this was during a time when film was still a relatively new medium. I suppose you could say it's like comparing Avatar and The Hurt Locker, only in this one instance, the Academy decided to give both films top honors. Then again, if they were both considered equal, why did one need to have the appellation "Unique and Artistic" attached to it? Methinks that even back then, people knew which award was meant to be the "real" top prize.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Force Majeure

Force Majeure
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Pop quiz, hotshot!

You're on vacation with your spouse and children at a ski resort. You're eating on a terrace when a big-ass avalanche comes tearing down the mountain headed straight for you and fixing to bury you alive. What do you do?

What do you do?!

Part of the appeal of superheroes, which are more popular than ever now, is the idea that anyone can become one, given the right circumstances. Pseudo-science aside, if we were bitten by a radioactive spider, or injected with a super-soldier serum, or were given an alien power ring, or what have you, we like to think that we would automatically have what it takes to fight evil and save lives. And sure, there are lots of people who do have the right stuff for that. Some of them have been trained for the job over many years, and others are somehow born with it.

And then there's the rest of us.

The problem is that we rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to test the belief that heroism is inherently within us. I was miles from Ground Zero when 9-11 went down, but if I had been in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, would I have had the courage to save even one life? I like to think so, but I'll never know for certain unless something similar were to happen again - not that I'm in any hurry to find out (knock on wood).

This is the central quandary behind the Swedish film Force Majeure. The decision the father makes as the avalanche approaches haunts him and the rest of his family throughout the rest of the story. At first, I thought the mother's reaction to the father's act was indicative of a deeper problem in their relationship, and perhaps it was, to an extent, but as the film progresses, it's clear that the father's act is the crux of the problem. There are quite a few awkward, uncomfortable moments as a result of the level of introspection that takes place. It's a hard thing to come face to face with the self you are as opposed to the self you imagine yourself to be, and we see that here.

I remember seeing the trailer for this twice before, but I found it difficult to figure what it was really about. I thought it was perhaps a dark comedy, but I wasn't sure. I was gonna pass on it until I saw all the glowing reviews for it. So I gave it a try, and I liked it more than I thought I would. In addition to the story, there are some wonderful skiing images and great shots of mountain landscapes. I've only been skiing once, as a kid, at a resort not unlike the one in this movie, and it was hardly anything terribly challenging. Seeing the skiing going on here kinda makes me wanna try it some day.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kirikou and the Sorceress

The Fairy Tale Blogathon is an event devoted to films inspired by fairy tales, folk stories and various tall tales from around the world, hosted by Movies Silently. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the site.

Kirikou and the Sorceress
seen online via YouTube

Once upon a time... in a small but culturally-diverse village called Queens...

...there lived a young(ish) blogger named Antonello. He loved to write about all manner of things, from the books he read to the places he went to. He wrote about the quality of fruit sold at the market he shopped at. He wrote about the jousting tournaments held every month at the village green. He wrote about the duke and duchess, especially when the local paparazzi took pictures of them drunk and bickering outside Astor's Tavern late at night and posted them all over Instagram the next day.

But none of it paid very well.

Friday, November 7, 2014


seen @ Bow Tie Cinemas Ziegfeld Theater, New York, NY

Is film - the physical medium - dead? Hollywood studios have endorsed digital photography as the cheaper way to go, and movie theaters have been forced to compensate by installing digital projectors, at great expense for some. A small-but-growing number of filmmakers, however, have asserted that they have every intention of keeping celluloid alive for as long as they can. Many of them have gone on the record about this, and the reasons why have been discussed in detail.

Earlier this year, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino took over as programming head of the LA theater he owns, the New Beverly, and he has made it crystal clear that he's going to make every effort to preserve 35mm film there, for both old and new releases. Recent films such as The Master, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Beasts of the Southern Wild were all shot on celluloid, by directors, old and new, with a strong preference for the medium. And preservation of older films is a cause that has grown in support in recent years thanks to directors like Martin Scorsese.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Running Man

The Running Man
seen on TV @ IFC

Over four years of doing this blog and I have yet to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger? This must not stand!

Arnie was one of my cinematic heroes growing up, especially once I got cable and I could see his earlier films as well as his more recent ones. Lots of film writers have talked about the action movie stars of the 80s and 90s and how they reflected the attitude of America at large, especially under Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. How ironic, then, that perhaps the biggest action movie star of all was a foreigner, a former bodybuilding champ who didn't have to do much more than flex his muscles and punch out the bad guys - at least in the beginning.

And America accepted him, in a tremendous way. Back then, we wanted our movie heroes to be larger than life, in a way we rarely, if ever, see anymore. Arnie and Sly and Chuck and Steven and JCVD and Bruce and Dolph - these were guys who took no shit and kicked all kinds of ass, and the characters they played and the settings they were in didn't matter much, as long as we got to see them do what they did best. In that sense, they were not unlike the silent movie heroes of days long gone by. People responded to the personas they generated over the course of their filmographies, which tended to carry over from one film to the next.

Arnie was the muscle-bound, strong-but-silent type, the grim badass who was deadly with a machine gun or a sword or his bare hands, whether fighting powerful wizards or alien assassins, as a good guy or a bad guy, and I loved it as much as everyone else did. Chalk it up to boyhood power fantasies if you like, although as I said, I didn't come to really appreciate Arnie until I got cable in the mid-80s and I could see movies like Conan the Barbarian and Commando and Predator. (I'm fairly sure I had already seen The Terminator by then. Not sure, though.)

The Running Man was an odd duck in the sense that he's supposed to be a "regular guy," with a "regular" name like "Ben Richards," despite the fact that he talks with a foreign accent and has bulging biceps! In his other films, his physique could be explained as part of his character as a soldier, or a savage warrior from an age undreamt of, or an artificial intelligence from the future. But it didn't matter! We still accepted him in this role because he's still a badass doing badass things. It's as if he became an American in the movies before he became an American for real.

And as an American in the movies, he had more of a swagger, more of an attitude as a result. Here we see him tossing off more one-liners and silly puns as he disposes of his adversaries, in addition to his by-now trademark catch-phrase, "I'll be back." (All good action heroes need one!) And indeed, by this point he's much more comfortable, much more relaxed as a movie star, and it shows. 

He was ready for the next phase of his career, where he could portray more complicated characters, relatively speaking (Total Recall, True Lies) and take baby steps into comedy (Twins, Junior) and self-parody (Last Action Hero). He could even return to his signature character, the Terminator, and put a spin on it that retains the spirit but also provides a great re-interpretation. All told, from 1982-94, he had a phenomenal run of films unmatched by any other action movie star.

But of course, it wasn't all wine and roses. We suspect now that Arnie may have been a little too friendly with the women sometimes. His marriage to Maria Shriver wasn't as happy as it could have been. And he had his share of controversy as governor of California. It's always a hard thing when you discover your idols have feet of clay. Even today, I still see him, to a degree, as he was during his peak as a movie star, and it's hard for me to accept that he might not have been a good guy. I bought into the myth of Arnie, manufactured through the movies, and I want to accept that. Ultimately, Arnie's story is the kind that could've only been made in America.

So why haven't I seen any of his post-governorship movies? I suspect the answer has less to do with Arnie specifically than with the action movie genre in general. I accept that Arnie and Sly and Bruce and all the rest have gotten older. But action movies today aren't like they were thirty years ago. For one thing, Arnie didn't need a cape and a mask to be a superhero; he already was one! More importantly, though, there was a rougher, anything-goes spirit that's missing from today's more sanitized, PG-13 movies. Also, they don't feel as special anymore - at least not the American ones. In this, as in many other things, it would appear that foreign countries are better at doing what we were once the best at.

Watching The Running Man once again made me think of reality TV and how wacky it's gotten. (It's set in 2017 - only three years away!) Recently, I saw my mother watching one of those shows - I think it was Survivor, not sure - where the contestants have to survive in what looked like some jungle environment, but the real kicker was this: they were naked. Naturally, the naughty bits were blurred or pixelated, so looking at it didn't have quite the prurient appeal it might have had under other circumstances, but this does seem like the kind of TV show one would find in the future dystopias of films like The Running Man or Robocop or what have you. So I guess the future is here. Yay?