Saturday, February 28, 2015

A long life, and a prosperous one

He spent his final months trying to keep others from the same fate as him. He blamed cigarettes for wrecking his health and he encouraged others to quit smoking before it was too late. I would see him on Twitter, periodically imploring his many fans to not be like him in this respect. I hope people listened to him. If his death serves any kind of purpose, I sincerely hope it acts as a lesson to others.

In addition - and I'm afraid I don't remember what spurned him to do this; perhaps it had to do with his failing health as well - he also spent his final months encouraging his fans to adopt him as a surrogate grandfather. It seemed like a joke at first, but it wasn't, and from what I saw on his Twitter feed, his virtual family grew by leaps and bounds. And yeah, I, too, accepted him as my adopted "grandpa," though it didn't come with any kind of reward or benefit beyond bragging rights. It wasn't a contest of any kind, and I don't believe it was meant as a publicity stunt.

So when I say that his death hit me almost as hard as the death of a family member, I'm not exaggerating too much.

He was part of my life for a long enough time to qualify. While I identify more with the Next Generation era and beyond, there's no doubt that I've always had a great appreciation for the original incarnation of Star Trek. Much has been written and said about the cultural impact the show had, and continues to have, on society, and his character, Spock, was a huge part of that.

Think about what Spock represents. Prior to 1966, the year Trek was born, aliens in science fiction tended to fall into one of three categories: bug-eyed monsters; strangers who stood above and apart from humanity, often times in judgment on us in one way or another, or so human looking and acting that the term "alien" hardly seemed to apply. As much as humanity was drawn to the dream of space travel and extraterrestrial life, there was a lot of fear about what may happen to us and what we may find out there within the final frontier as well.

Then along comes Trek, which envisions a future where humanity gets its act together and works to expand its knowledge by exploring space. And what do we find? Aliens who clearly look alien, clearly look and act different from us - pointed ears, arched eyebrows and seemingly emotionless - and not only do we learn that they're nothing to be afraid of, but we're able to find common ground with them. We're able to see in them the things they have in common with us, and one of us finds beauty and love in them as well. 

Spock's existence is proof of that. He may seem aloof, but he works with humanity. He shares many of the same goals as we do, and though he may get treated as an outsider at times, by his own people as well as ours, he doesn't let that stop him from pursuing his goals. He represents what can happen when we face the unknown and discover it to be not as scary as we may have thought.

That's a difficult role to embody from week to week, one full of nuance and great subtlety. It's the kind of challenge many actors would give their eye teeth for, but not exactly one that comes with any kind of road map. Portraying such a character from week to week would require time to grow into, to learn from the inside out so that he would be taken seriously, and not be seen as campy or childish.

It would require an actor like Leonard Nimoy.

You know the result.

His career contained much more than Trek, of course. Other television and film roles, directing, photography, being a husband and a father. We know that it took him a long time to accept the significance of his character within pop culture - he did, after all, write an autobiography called I Am Not Spock - but once he did, I suspect, I hope, that his life was better for it, because he had, and still has, legions of fans worldwide who love him and are grateful to him and Bill and De and Gene and all the rest for what they gave to the world. 

I'm disappointed he won't be around for the 50th anniversary of Trek next year. It will seem a little somber without him around, to say the least... but I know that Trekkies everywhere will keep him in their hearts.

I sure will.

Friday, February 27, 2015

New release roundup for February '15

- Still Alice. Honestly, it's difficult to make affliction/disease movies distinctive anymore since, by necessity, they have to follow a similar pattern: normal life, discovery of affliction, cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages until we get to the misty-eyed slow death, or something close to it, at the end. Still Alice doesn't pave any new ground in this genre, but it is well done, and Julianne Moore makes it totally watchable and believable. Moore has always been a favorite of mine, from as far back as her Paul Thomas Anderson movies Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and then discovering her older work like Safe, and enjoying her in later movies like Far From Heaven, Children of Men and The Kids are All Right. She has deserved an Oscar for a long, long time and it's wonderful to finally see her with one at last. Kudos also to Kristen Stewart. It's good to know she's still doing indie movies now that she's through with you-know-what.

Since I didn't see many new movies this month, I thought I'd use this space to address this Variety article about the Wachowski Brothers Siblings and Jupiter Ascending. The belief expressed here is that the failure of the movie to catch on with a wide audience despite its original premise somehow signals the Death Knell for Original Movies in Hollywood, and that we're just gonna get more and more sequels and comic book/video game/TV show/YA novel adaptations, forever and ever amen, and that WE DESERVE IT.

First of all, that ship has sailed years ago. Take your pick where it began: with the first Avengers movie, the first Spider-Man movie, the first X-Men movie, or maybe The Phantom Menace - doesn't matter. People have been singing this song for a long time, and the sky still has not fallen (yet).

More importantly: you wanna talk about truly original movies at the box office? Okay, let's talk about that. (All figures to follow via Box Office Mojo.) Let's talk about Neighbors and Ride Along, the top two comedies of 2014, with approximately $150 million and $134 million, respectively, on budgets of approximately $18 million and $25 million, also respectively. Let's talk about The Grand Budapest Hotel, a quirky independent film that opened on only four US screens before expansion, and went on to make $59 million domestic and $174 million worldwide.

Oh, I'm sorry, you meant sci-fi movies, didn't you? Okay, how about Lucy? Last year, it made $126 million domestic and $458 million worldwide. Or better yet, Interstellar: $187 million domestic, $671 million worldwide. No one denies that the odds are more against original material than ever these days, but they're still being made and they do still succeed (regardless of quality).

Beyond the numbers, though, the point I really wanna make is this: sometimes good directors make bad movies, or at the very least, movies that underachieve. It happens. Spielberg made 1941. Coppola made One From the Heart. Bigelow made U-571. Linklater remade The Bad News Bears! They all got it out of their systems and moved on in their careers, and the Wachowskis will, too. Granted, their post-Matrix careers haven't been quite as dominant, but I'd be willing to wager that the changes in the marketplace and the industry have as much to do with that as anything else. And personally, I think they could stand to go back to their Bound days and make something smaller for a change. Might be just what they need.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Madeleine Carroll Blogathon is an event in honor of the actress, presented by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

The Prisoner of Zenda
seen on TV @ TCM

I've seen lots of movies about double identities, and I'm sure you have too... and maybe if I had seen The Prisoner of Zenda before most of them, I'd like it more. As it is, I thought it was just okay. The double identity movie that it reminded me the most of was Dave - regular guy substitutes for look-alike head of state in a time of crisis - only with more swordplay. This was a vehicle for Ronald Colman, and I liked him. I remembered him from the movie Random Harvest, and I liked him in that too. The sets and costumes looked good, the sword fight near the end between Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was great, and for 1937, the optical effect of having Colman shake hands with himself was pretty convincing. But I kinda knew where this story was going after the first ten minutes. 

Still, we're not here today to talk about Colman, but about his co-star, Madeleine Carroll. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a whole lot to do in Zenda other than stare lovingly into Colman's eyes and act regal, though she certainly gets her moments. I thought she had a more substantial role in The 39 Steps.

Carroll was a superstar in Britain during the 30s, and her popularity increased after the success of Steps, an Alfred Hitchcock film. She worked with Hitch again in Secret Agent. During her Hollywood years, she starred opposite the likes of Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Fred MacMurray, and even Bob Hope. During World War 2, her sister died in a London bombing raid, and as a result, Carroll became a nurse for the Red Cross and worked in the United Seamens Service as entertainment director. She wasn't able to regain her popularity after the war, however.

How does Carroll stack up against the other Hitchcock blondes? This top ten list ranks her sixth, for what it's worth. This article breaks down the whole obsession Hitch had with blondes and compares the most iconic ones. The writer credits Carroll as the first, though some believe the trend began as far back as Hitchcock's silent films with an actress named Anny Ondra.

That's about all I got on Carroll. I'm sure she was good in other movies. Maybe I'll watch one or two of them in the future.

Other Madeleine Carroll movies:
The 39 Steps

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rita Moreno


I wanna talk about Rita Moreno.

I don't think I made it clear just how big a thrill it was to see her in person at the United Palace last year. I've always liked her and respected her, but hearing her speak about her career and her life with so much humor and candor was wonderful - and she still looks like a million bucks!

As you may have guessed, when I think of her, I often think of The Electric Company. For you young'uns in the audience, this was an educational variety show for kids that aired on PBS (still does) which always began with that delirious rebel yell from Moreno. The difference between it and Sesame Street was that it tended to skew towards slightly older children, though younger kids could watch it too. Among the other original cast members included Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman, and Irene Cara was part of the kid cast.

Imagine Saturday Night Live as designed by school teachers and you've got EC, and Moreno was one of the shining stars. I adored the show. It made learning fun with a wide variety of songs, sketches, cartoons and other such material, and even if it lacked muppets, it was just so entertaining, for adults as well as kids. Here are three examples of Moreno's contributions, among many, and here's Moreno herself talking about the show.

I could go on and on about EC, but what I want to focus on most with regard to Moreno's outstanding career is her status as an EGOT - one of only twelve people who have won the grand slam of competitive entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She achieved this milestone in less than twenty years as well, which is equally impressive. EC got her the Grammy, so we'll come back to it.

The Oscar came first, in 1961, for West Side Story, in the Supporting Actress category. A confession: hearing her speak, it usually takes me a minute to adjust to her normal, non-accented voice, and WSS is the reason why. Truth is, though, she tended to get lots of "fiery Latina" roles like that early in her career, not to mention "ethnic" roles like The King and I.

Why do I love her in WSS? Her singing and dancing, of course; the rapport she has with Natalie Wood and especially George Chakiris; her importance to the story; but mostly the way she just commands the screen whenever she's on it. WSS may be Romeo and Juliet modernized, but it has its own identity, its own distinctiveness that makes it so much more than that, and Moreno is a major reason why. 

Something not often mentioned about Moreno's win, as well: she beat, among others, Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg, a rare non-musical, dramatic role for her. The Academy blew it when they didn't give Garland the Oscar for A Star is Born; this could've easily been a make-up win for her, but it wasn't. Props to Judy, but Moreno's win was the right call.

The Grammy came next, in 1972 for The Electric Company soundtrack, in the Best Recording for Children category (since renamed Best Album for Children). Sesame Street and The Muppets, ironically, were among the competition that year. EC debuted in 1971. Here's one of the songs from that first year which I distinctively remember watching on the show and loving every time I saw it. Moreno shared the award with Cosby, music director and co-producer Joe Raposo, and co-producer Lee Chamberlin. Fun fact: Tom Lehrer was among the songwriters for EC!

In 1975, Moreno won the Tony, for Best Featured or Supporting Actress in a Play, for The Ritz. All I know of this show is what I've read online, and I'm not entirely sure I believe it: a dude running from the mob hides out in a Manhattan gay bathhouse, and among the characters he meets is Moreno's, whom he thinks is a man in drag?! Doesn't seem possible! Here she is in the film versionJack Weston, Jerry Stiller and F. Murray Abraham were also among the original cast (all of whom appeared in the film version), and the play ran for 398 performances.

Finally, Moreno clinched the EGOT in 1977 with the Emmy, for of all things, The Muppet Show! The category was Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music. My love for this show is unparalleled, and I vaguely recall seeing this episode for the first time as a kid. Moreno does several numbers, but perhaps the most memorable is her sexy yet hilarious rendition of "Fever" with Animal on drums. Here's the entire episode; "Fever" begins at about 22:39.  As if that weren't enough, Moreno won the next year in the Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series category for her appearance in The Rockford Files.

Moreno has had a long and still-active career in film and television. Modern TV audiences, young and old, likely know her from stuff like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Oz, the Law & Order shows and Happily Divorced, among others, and she doesn't appear to show any signs of slowing down at age 84. Writing this has been a lot of fun, and more important, it's given me new and renewed appreciation for her as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, and an inspiration to all audiences.

Next: Frank Capra

Movies with Rita Moreno:
West Side Story
Singin' in the Rain

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

#TCMparty: Annie Hall

This is a type of post I've never attempted here before, so bear with me if it doesn't work quite right. I've written before about live-tweeting movies and TV shows, as well as about the Twitter hashtag #TCMparty and my experience with it. Since I've committed to spending 2015 exploring classic movies in greater depth than usual, it seemed appropriate to spend some time live-tweeting a movie with the TCM fans on Twitter, but this is the first post I've devoted exclusively to the experience.

In the past, I've found live-tweeting a bit awkward because I don't like the idea of dividing my time between the movie and my cellphone, so I knew if I were to do this again, I'd have to pick a movie I was already well familiar with, and I did: Annie Hall. I'm gonna attempt to summarize my experience live-tweeting the movie last night, as part of #TCMparty.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar 2014: The winners

Best Picture - Birdman
Best Director - Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Best Actor - Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Actress - Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Best Supporting Actor - JK Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress - Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

13-for-24. Like I said, I knew I'd lose on a bunch of these. 

I never "got" Birdman. I knew it wasn't a bad movie by any means, but it never hit me like some of the other Best Picture nominees, like Whiplash, and especially Selma. I can't say I'm disappointed at Birdman winning. I honestly thought the Academy would go for something simpler, like Boyhood, but one can hardly fault them for picking a more daring and challenging movie. So kudos to them, I guess. I am disappointed that Wes Anderson didn't win Original Screenplay, though.

Anybody wanna explain to me what I'm missing with Birdman?

2013 winners
2012 winners
2011 winners
2010 winners

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscar 2014: My predictions

Difficult year for predictions. I fully expect to lose on a bunch of these pics, but so be it.

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

American Sniper
The Imitation Game
Inherent Vice
The Theory of Everything

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything

"Everything is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie
"Glory" from Selma
"Grateful" from Beyond the Lights
"I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
"Lost Stars" from Begin Again

American Sniper
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

American Sniper

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Ida (Poland)

Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
The Phone Call