Friday, October 21, 2016

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)
TCM viewing

I think the first time I saw Joan Crawford in a movie might have been during my video store days in the late 90s. I had read an article somewhere, I think, in which Martin Scorsese talked about old movies and he mentioned Johnny Guitar was an underrated gem. So I took it home one night and watched it. I had thought it was okay at the time, but I couldn't understand why all the guys in the movie were hung up over a woman as... how shall I put it?... severe looking as Crawford. Her face had hard angles, with a thin and wide mouth that looked peculiar. And what was up with those eyebrows?

What I didn't realize at the time, of course, was this film was made later in Joanie's long film career, which dates back to the silent era. In her youth, she was much more glamorous, the way you expect a movie star to look. Still, while some old-school movie actresses aged well, like Audrey Hepburn or Olivia DeHavilland, Joanie... Well, I suppose such things are subjective anyway.

Joanie was one of those larger-than-life film superstars who hardly seem real anymore. The average person (read: non-cinephile) may remember her more for her off-screen activity, if anything, especially her contentious relationship with her daughter, a story which was also immortalized on the big screen, in all its unbelievable, campy glory.

Those of us who study the movies, though, know Joanie was way more than that. She, along with her great rival Bette Davis, not to mention the almighty Garbo, were the epitome of 30s romance and glamour in Hollywood movies during a time, the Depression, when Americans needed escapist fare badly. Perhaps that's why these screen queens have lingered so long in our collective memory: movies like the ones they made were cinematic comfort food.

Time soon had its way, as it does to us all. Garbo left the stage early so we wouldn't have to watch her age, but Joanie and Bette remained. It was in middle age that they gave us two films that showcased them at their fullest; mature yet powerful and glamorous roles in which their age worked to their advantage: Bette in All About Eve, and Joanie in today's subject, Mildred Pierce.

This was the kind of role every actress dreams of: an empowered rags-to-riches story, crossed with a murder mystery, crossed again with a dramatic mother-daughter tale. It has everything you could want in a movie and more, yet Joanie had to fight for the role. Bette, as fate would have it, turned it down. Joanie had to test for it like everyone else.

Once she got the part, though, the film was built around her. Jack Carson and Zachary Scott may not have been on the same level as Joanie's great 30s leading men Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery (and they were too busy fighting World War 2 anyway), but they serve the story, and her, well.

Mildred must have been a revelation to fans who remembered Joanie from her earlier work, sort of like when Julia Roberts went from doing easy rom-coms to Erin Brockovich. Joanie's role as wife and mother gave her a whole new color on her palette from which to paint. She employs it well, with help from some truly outstanding camera work and lighting from director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller that flatter her and take advantage of her thespic talents.

And then there's the rapport Joanie shares with Ann Blyth as her evil daughter Veda. Oh, did I say evil? I meant EEEEEEEEEEEVIL. You would never guess in a million years Blyth came from fluffy musicals! Jacqueline, the Internet's resident Blythologist, in her 2014 post on Mildred, talks about how Joanie screen tested with Blyth, which she totally did not have to do, and how she let Blyth share the spotlight in key scenes, so when we reach that OH NO SHE DIDN'T moment when Veda slaps Mildred, we know that moment was earned.

Joanie won her one and only Oscar for Mildred. She would go on to be nominated twice more. Some today may snicker at the mention of her name and make jokes about wire hangers, but before you do, take a look at her old movies, particularly this one. There's a reason we cinephiles still talk about her after all this time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Five movies about coping with boredom

...When public places provide constant entertainment they’re undermining my parenting decisions and depriving my child of what he could learn while bored. I understand what motivates them to install televisions and DVD players – no one wants to deal with a screaming toddler, and other patrons might get upset at the noise — but in my opinion their ubiquitous presence indicates a deeper problem.
I was running late for my writers group meeting. The subway was stalled. A bus would've taken too long. I was flush with money, so I decided to take a taxi, something I almost never do unless it's really necessary. It was a spur of the moment decision (and at $24, I'm not likely to do it again for awhile).

I got inside and there was a video screen affixed to the back of the passenger front seat. I wanted to sit and read my book, but a news report was playing, loudly. It was a touch screen. There was a mute button at the bottom, but either I was all thumbs or it was too small. I couldn't get it to work. I had to ask the driver to kill the sound for me. He did, but I still had to deal with the images on the monitor playing out of the corner of my eye as I read. There wasn't much room in the back of the taxi; the screen was fairly close to my face. Ignoring it completely was almost impossible.

Taxis, restaurants, cafes, bars, hospital waiting rooms - it seems like someone passed a law requiring public places to have video screens and/or music playing to keep you from being bored. (My "favorite" is music in the bathrooms. This is a thing now. Zod forbid you take a dump without Katy Perry to keep you company.) If you don't want to look or listen to them, though, if you'd rather quietly read or write, or - here's a wild thought - engage in a conversation with another human being - you're SOL.

This article, which I saw a mere week after the taxi adventure, focuses on children, but I'm here to tell you, it's not only kids who have to deal with the problem... and it is a problem, because what's gonna happen to us when we run out of spaces to unplug, to sit in silence and not be bombarded by man-made sounds and images for two seconds?

I never thought about it before, but I'm beginning to see the virtue in boredom as a sharp contrast to constant sensory stimulation. When you are your only source of entertainment, your mind is absolutely forced to come up with something, anything, to keep yourself alert and active. If we lose touch with that ability to make something outta nothing, then it's game over for us as a species. We might as well go back to living in caves for all we'll be worth.

So here are five examples of how people have dealt with boredom in the movies. If this post bores you, by the way, just make believe I'm Roger Ebert writing about the new Scorsese movie. Or get away from this computer screen altogether and go out and play. Does anybody remember playtime?

- Daydreaming. "Whaddya feel like doin' tonight?" In the Best Picture Oscar winner Marty, this is a familiar query between Ernest Borgnine and Joe Mantell, desperate as these two working-class schlubs are for some action of a Saturday night. In this early scene, they imagine going out with girls they like. Borgnine's Marty, in particular, dreams of finding the right one and getting married, like his family and his culture expect. When you have plenty of unwanted time on your hands, imagining something better can become habit-forming, until dreams are all you have. Such is the case with Marty, until he does find a girl later on in the story.

- Bickering. For a teenager, few things are more boring than serving a stretch in detention, especially with people with whom you have nothing in common. The John Hughes 80s classic The Breakfast Club throws a brain, a princess, an athlete, a basket case and a criminal together in one room (in what could be seen as a precedent for MTV's The Real World), and the initial result, naturally, is infighting. The five of them would never be put together under any other circumstances, even though they all go to the same school in the same town. This is partly by choice. Is it any wonder, then, they struggle to coexist, never mind get along? By the end, though, they do reach a kind of detente.

- Sex. One can hardly go wrong here, but what if the old in-out-in-out is dull and perfunctory? If you're gonna be bored, you might as well be bored in French, and in 1998, a film actually called L'ennui had this covered. The main character's a philosophy teacher, for Pete's sake, so he's already on that existential, life-is-meaningless tip. He meets a young chick who's his polar opposite, so naturally, they have sex! It's not a lot of fun for either of them, though. I haven't seen this one. Few of the reviews for it were raves. Most of the positive ones were qualified in their judgments. Perhaps that's appropriate for a film named "boredom"?

- Mockery. Laughing at other people and imagining them as all sorts of things is easy and fun, as the girls of Ghost World demonstrate. Thora Birch and a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson get their kicks making up stories about strangers and putting down their slowly-gentrifying neighborhood. Things kinda sorta happen when they meet Steve Buscemi, but on the whole, this is a very character-driven film, following Enid and Rebecca wherever they feel like going.

- Wandering. Eventually there comes a time when you're all alone with nothing to do. Walking around town is an easy solution to stave off boredom. In this wordless vignette from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Johansson (again) strolls through Kyoto, simply taking in the sights and sounds around her, occasionally interacting with this foreign world.

Additional suggestions for dealing with... [yawns] boredom are... welcome...


Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation (2016)
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Kyle Baker is a cartoonist and illustrator who has worked for both Marvel and DC, as well as other comics publishers, creating a wide variety of comics and graphic novels. Why am I bringing him up here, in a post about the new movie The Birth of a Nation? Simple. Among Baker's body of work includes a graphic novel about Nat Turner and a graphic novel called Birth of a Nation. I can't talk about this new movie without mentioning him.

Nation came out first, in 2004. He illustrated the story co-written by Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and film director Reginald Hudlin. It's a comedy about a predominantly black town that secedes from the United States to form their own independent nation. 

A few highlights: their national anthem is a parody of the theme from Good Times; there's a spirited debate over whether Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur belong on their currency; and there's a running joke about picking up chicks at Planned Parenthood. There are serious moments as well, including talk about black disenfranchisement and the meaning of patriotism. It's full of the same socio-political humor that made McGruder's Boondocks a successful comic strip and animated series. Baker's color art is organic and lively, with appealing shapes and sensuous, dynamic line work, rendered in lush, bright colors.

Nat Turner came out in single-issue form beginning in 2007, before the collected edition was released a year later. If you know Baker's art, you're bound to recognize Turner as his, but the style is a marked contrast to Nation. The black and white art is sketchier, starker, like the fever dream of a dying man. Even within the raw images, you can detect Baker's fine, trained hand, his eye for fluidity of form and his ability to communicate with pictures. This is key...

...because Turner contains almost no dialogue from Baker. The only text comes from the memoir The Confessions of Nat Turner, written while the 19th century slave rebel was in prison, after his brief insurrection was put down. Baker uses his art to build a narrative from the bare bones of Turner's text, covering the man's life. It includes the depiction of Africans caught by white hunters, their middle passage by sea to America, and their sale as slaves. Reading the book is not unlike watching a silent movie.

Baker initially self-published Turner despite having no experience. As a former comics self-publisher, I can testify to the extreme difficulty involved in getting your book noticed by a marketplace that perpetually glorifies 50-70-year-old juvenile power fantasies featuring steroid cases in long underwear created by white men. Baker was part of the corporate machine that grinds out those comics week after week for a long time. In the afterword to the collected edition of Turner, he says he had to learn how to self-publish, to start and sustain a business, on his own, something many would-be Stan Lees almost never take the time to do beforehand. I didn't!

It's this DIY spirit (and absolutely NOTHING ELSE) that links Baker, I believe, to Nate Parker, the producer-writer-director-star of Nation the movie. Parker was an established Hollywood actor who had been in some stuff (including Red Hook Summer and Beyond the Lights). He put up $100,000 out of his own pocket to fund this film, which conquered Sundance and looked like as sure a Best Picture Oscar contender as I've ever seen... but. (I'll return to that "but" in a moment.)

In Parker's Nation, we see alleged child of destiny Turner (played as an adult by Parker), a slave, educated by a white woman through the Bible. He becomes a Christian preacher. His owner pimps Turner out to other slave owners so Turner can use God's word to keep other slaves - his own people - submissive. When he has his my-god-what-have-I-done moment, however, he chooses to employ that same Bible to justify his bloody revolt.

It's this sort of thing that once again, makes me believe religion is far more trouble than it's worth. If God exists and the Bible is his inspiration, it was still written by mortal men. Throughout the centuries, far too many people took from it only what they chose and used it for their own ends. One group of people used the Bible to enslave another group and to keep them on their knees. The enslaved used it to throw off their chains and reclaim their lives. In both cases, the result is persecution and murder. In God's name.

They can't both be right. Can they?

So here is the aforementioned "but": it would seem Parker has gotten himself into some serious trouble, to say the least. I saw Nation unaware of the scandal. I found out about it the day after seeing the film, and I like to think I wrote about it objectively. I, however, am not an Academy voter.

I hope the allegations are untrue, for the sake of the women involved, and also for the sake of everyone else who participated in making Nation. Parker may or may not be guilty. His cast and crew, however, should not suffer for his sins. This is an important film. I hope the Academy will judge it fairly.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Do celebrity voices matter in animated films?

Ellen DeGeneres as Dory
When I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, there were trailers for three animated feature films, one after another. For the life of me, I swear I could not tell them apart. They all sought to tell earnest stories of friendship and following your dreams and blah blah blah, with a quirky-but-lovable cast of characters, familiar pop music on the soundtrack, and most of all, celebrity voice actors! All three trailers pushed their all-star voice casts hard. I'll come back to that in a minute.

Here's a sampling of animated films currently in production in Europe: a Poland/Spain/Belgium/Germany co-production set in 1975 about a Polish journalist in Angola writing about the civil war. A fantasy film from Belgium and France about a tween girl who makes a deal with the devil to become a witch. A modern-day fairy tale from France and Canada about a third-world homeless boy out to stop the growth of a dictatorship in his homeland through his dreams. From the UK and Canada, an adaptation of the American cult comic book The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. From Germany and the UK, a comedic interpretation of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve (with nudity). Do I even need to bother going into Japanese animation?

I hope you see my point.

Mike Myers as Shrek
Getting back to the matter of celebrity voice actors: this is a 2014 article about the proliferation of the trend and how it's beginning to threaten the livelihood of non-celebrity, trained VO actors. I admit, part of what drew me to the first Toy Story movie was Tom Hanks as the voice of Woody. The number-one incentive for using celebs, money, is addressed at length in the piece. It's almost impossible to ignore if you're a studio head.

Are all celebrity voices, however, equally distinctive? When Jen and I went to Videology's movie trivia night months ago, one of the categories in the multi-stage contest was identifying celebrity voices. The hosts would play an audio clip from a commercial narrated by a (presumably) known Hollywood star, and the contestants had to name the speaker.

Of all the stages of the trivia contest that night - I think there were six in all - this was the one with the fewest points earned. Every team in the audience struggled to name the voices, and the impression I had was, most of the contestants were above-average in terms of film and TV knowledge. Jen and me are certainly no slouches, either, but we and our teammates faltered too.

Mark Hamill as the Joker
Do kids even care that much about celebrity voices? When I asked my professional cartoonist friend Scott Roberts on Facebook, he didn't seem to think so: "The celebrity voices at one time didn't matter. I think The Jungle Book [1967] was one of the first animated films to promote the idea. Then it started to look bankable. Now if a film doesn't have an all-star cast, and it fares poorly, many people assume the lack of star power was the reason. Yet sometimes the chosen actors are criticized. I think it matters more to distributors and the studio than it does to a kid."

The novelty has long since worn off on me. I saw Kubo despite the celebrity voices, not because of them (though they were good). I had heard it was a well-done movie overall, and it was. This fall's wave of animated films may or may not be any good (though I doubt it), and in the end, you can't blame Hollywood for giving the celebrity VO cast the hard sell. Still, it shouldn't be the overriding reason anyone sees an animated film. A good one should have more going for it than that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe
seen @ UA Kaufman Astoria 14, Astoria, Queens NY

I don't recall when I first learned chess. I suspect it was sometime in junior high. I have a mental image of an adult, probably a teacher, explaining the rules to me. I'm fairly sure I didn't learn it from my father. He was more of a checkers man - that and cards.

I never had any great desire to master the game. Video games were more my speed as a kid, and as an adult, I'd rather play gin rummy. Put a chess board and pieces in front of me, I'll play you, but only for fun.

It's a very competitive game, that's for sure. Whenever I go to Washington Square Park, I see dudes playing each other on tables at the southwest corner, arranged in semicircles near the entrance. They tend to be friendly games, but with a fair amount of trash talking. At a Panera Bread near me, I often see several dudes who regularly go at it, tooth and nail, when they play. They seem to be pals, too, but their competition is cutthroat. They slap the clock timers furiously and argue over moves.

Chess ain't for dummies. Remembering how each piece moves, being ever-conscious of protecting your king while searching for a hole in your opponent's line of defense to exploit - it's demanding. Even a casual game requires attempting to think one or two steps ahead at the least.

I tend to play defensively. I don't wanna come on so strong I wind up slaughtered because of defenses I should have taken when I had the chance. It doesn't matter. I still end up losing when I play the computer on my laptop.

Chess doesn't strike me as a sport the way baseball is a sport, yet Queen of Katwe is labeled a sports movie anyway, so whatever. ESPN Films co-produced it, so I guess it counts. Chess doesn't lend itself well to film - there are only so many furrowed brows
and close-ups of chess pieces you can make - yet there have been a small amount of chess films. Tobey Maguire played Bobby Fisher recently, for example.

Mira Nair is a good director. I enjoyed The Namesake and Mississippi Masala. I was conflicted when I first saw she was making this one for Disney, but this isn't as saccharine as you might expect. I did think her editor had a heavy hand. Editing should never call attention to itself, but from the first post-opening credits scene, it did. I also thought the film was a bit longer than perhaps it should have been; just when you think Phiona Mutesi is about to win that Big Tournament, something sets her back and she has to win another Big Tournament. Still, it was pleasant to watch. David Oyelowo continues to impress me in everything he does. I like him a lot. And Nair did a wonderful thing at the end by bringing out the main cast, one by one, for a "curtain call" with their real-life counterparts.

So the last time I spoke about Lupita Nyong'o, I challenged Hollywood to capitalize on all the goodwill built by her Oscar win and make her a star. It's been a mixed bag at best so far. Yes, she was in The Force Awakens, but as a CGI character. Ditto The Jungle Book. And did anyone even bother with that Liam Neeson plane movie? She's had better luck on Broadway. Jen told me she saw Nyong'o in Eclipsed and loved it.

Katwe is the first real film showcase role for Nyong'o since 12 Years a Slave. She's excellent, but I admit I had a hard time imagining her being old enough to have had four kids, two of them teens. Eh. I'll let it slide.

So I saw the movie with my friend Sandi, who I've been itching to finally tell you about. I met her a year and a half ago at the Newtown Literary reading. Her poetry was published in the same issue as my short story. In talking to her afterwards, she had said she was trying to start a sci-fi/fantasy writers group. I had some old sci-fi material that either never saw the light of day or was never properly critiqued or both, so I decided to join up. I spent the next eight or nine months meeting with Sandi and these two other girls at her place in Astoria. It was helpful, but being in two writers groups at once became a strain, so I had to leave.

Sandi and I, however, have stayed in touch. Katwe was only the second movie we've seen together, after Kubo and the Two Strings, which we also liked. She actually got a little teary-eyed over Katwe. She's the type that likes to stay for all the credits at a movie's end, unlike me, so I've learned to indulge her. I don't mind it  so much if I'm with someone. Besides, the day before was her birthday.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Calling all screenwriters...

One more thing before I take my break.

You've seen me write on this blog about my buddy John for years. Well, now, you get to meet him! He's devoted the past several years to writing in general and screenwriting in particular. Now, he's launching an online tutorial devoted to the subject. This is the first in what will be a series on YouTube. John is my oldest friend. I've known him since high school, and I can absolutely vouch for his skills. The things he talks about in this first installment are basic, but useful for anyone looking to get their feet wet. So give his tutorial a try and tell him I sent you!

New release roundup for September '16 and links

Well, you didn't think I stopped watching new movies last month, did you? I would've loved to have devoted entire posts to these films, but instead I'll give you the Reader's Digest version:

- Southside With You. Who woulda thought someone would make a movie about how the President and First Lady met? Or that it'd be this good? Rookie writer-director Richard Tanne forged this screenplay from all the bits of information publicly known about how Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met, in Chicago in 1989. He gets two terrific performances out of Tika Sumpter and newcomer Parker Sawyers. The result is a smart and warm romantic drama that makes you forget who these two young people will eventually become.

Kubo and the Two Strings. In an industry that continues to equate animated film with middle-of-the-road, celebrity-voiced, CGI pablum that teaches the same old lessons over and over again (and I may have more to say about this soon), this movie was a welcome change of pace. Amazing things are being done at LAIKA Entertainment out of Portland, and Kubo is the latest example. More than the stop-motion animation, which is incredible, this movie had a little bit of an edge; a story with character-based humor and not cutesy jokes; a measured pace that didn't need cinematographic acrobatics and rapid-fire editing; and an engaging story where the celebrity voice actors... acted! LAIKA, you have my attention. Keep up the good work.

Sully. By now, I think, we've come to expect Tom Hanks to excel in a role like this, so while saying he was great may not be original or creative, it's no less true. He just was! Cpt. Sullenberger's miraculous airplane landing on the Hudson River and subsequent board hearing made for a thin movie, but I'd still say it was worth seeing to see how Clint Eastwood recreates the event. I admit, I was trying to pick out where he used CGI and where he didn't, and maybe that threw me out of the movie. Still, it's not like we don't know the ending. Maybe that's the problem with many of these "ripped from the headlines" movies: trying to inject a feeling of suspense into tales everyone knows. I dunno. Regardless, this was good.

- Hell or High Water. Bonnie and Clyde meets Margin Call in this tale of West Texas bank robbers in the post-Bernie Madoff era. Never heard of Brit director David Mackenzie before, but he and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan put together a rock solid crime movie with memorable characters. There's a pervasive feeling of betrayal towards an economy, with the banks as its representatives, that failed the people in this story, and not just the bank robbing brothers. Even the minor characters are shaped by this attitude, which makes for some pleasantly surprising moments. Jeff Bridges does his best Sam Elliot impression as the Texas Ranger on the hunt for Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both of whom are also very good. Great soundtrack as well. Saw this at the Cinemart in Forest Hills and got to test-drive their new luxury recliner seats. They're just like the ones AMC uses, only without AMC prices!

And I've even got some links for ya:

Raquel reviews a doc that tries to uncover who made the first film.

Fritzi reimagines Star Trek as a silent film.

Danny has seen about 8000 movies and ain't done by a long shot.

Did you ever wonder what the deal was between Norma Desmond and her monkey?

On screen masking and why it's important for movie theaters.

Awhile back, I wrote about a documentary in the works about cargo biking. Now, at last, there's a trailer.

Courtesy of my pal Michael Neno, here's a look at a Star Trek convention program from 1976.

Thanks once again for joining me for my Star Trek month. Numbers-wise, I did okay. I hit my minimum pageview goal for the month (barely). I had thought so many consecutive posts might have an effect on the pageview counts of individual posts, but that doesn't appear to be the case. When I began WSW, I remember thinking I had to provide content as often as possible no matter what, but there was no way I could sustain that pace. Props to those who can. 

My monthly series on Star Trek today will continue to the end of the year, and then that'll be it - at least, until the next time I get a hankering to write about one of the movies or something. And of course, I'll talk about the premiere of Discovery in 2017 (though now it won't be until May).

I need a break, so I'm gonna take one. See you in a week.