Monday, May 2, 2016

Purple links

And just when we had gotten over the death of Bowie, this happens. I remember back in  junior high we'd occasionally debate who was better, Prince or Michael Jackson. It was probably an unfair comparison. As awesome as Michael was, he didn't play an instrument, whereas Prince - well, perhaps it'd be easier to list what he couldn't play.

The film career of the Purple One was perhaps a little less distinguished overall, but hey, criticizing him for not being a great actor is kinda like criticizing Mozart because he never wrote a novel. I think I might have seen Under the Cherry Moon at the old video store, but if I did, I certainly don't remember any of it. Anybody out there seen it and wanna defend it? (Or is that asking too much?)

If Purple Rain were the only movie Prince had made, it would've been more than enough. No, it's not perfect by any means, but the music makes it so watchable, and because there's so much of it, and because it's so good, the movie is never dull for long. I'm not sure what you could compare it to: maybe Jailhouse Rock in the sense that it's an acting/singing vehicle for its musician superstar at the peak of his popularity, only Rain is perhaps a bit more personal. I would not be surprised to discover it was an influence on subsequent movies like 8 Mile and maybe even Once.

Prince was an American original, a truly gifted musician who carved his niche upon the pop music landscape and carved it deep.

In happier news, the Alamo Drafthouse is coming to Brooklyn this summer! You have no idea how excited I am at this news. You've already heard me complain about the area surrounding the Yonkers location and the long commute. This will be much closer, and of course, because it's the Alamo, it'll have the same awesome features as the rest of the theaters. This is gonna be epic.

This might not be news to some of you, but I saw it and I thought it odd enough to mention it on Twitter and I thought I'd throw it out here as well. I was in a cafe in Astoria last month that had E.T. playing on a flat screen HD television. This is, as you know, a movie from 1982, and it was shot on 35mm film, long before the digital revolution. Yet, looking at it on this 21st-century ultra-modern television, I could not believe how clear and crisp looking the image was. It was so clear, in fact, that it didn't even look like celluloid. It looked a lot like it was shot on video.

Now the first time I noticed this, I was watching the first Hobbit movie, and at the time I thought, oh, this must be what Peter Jackson's 48-frames-per-second technology must be like. But then I saw that look on TV shows and other movies watched on HD screens as well, and I couldn't get over how odd it made older movies - say, from the early 90s and earlier - look. It makes them not look like film. Camera movements are noticeable that shouldn't be; the grainy texture of celluloid is almost completely lost - I actually thought at first I was watching a TV show parodying E.T. instead of the actual movie.

You'll recall when I wrote about Interstellar, I said I didn't recognize the look of 35mm film at first because I had become so used to seeing imagery from digital technology. This is almost the reverse - and I'm wondering whether or not this is a good thing. So much effort has been expended to save celluloid, to keep it around for the filmmakers who still want to use it, but what use is all that effort if these movies are seen on television screens that blunt the look of film? I dunno; it's just a thought that came to mind recently.

Remember the Cinemart, the local theater I told you about that went back to showing first-run movies after years of being a second-run place? I passed by there recently, and they were closed - but for renovations. Apparently they're doing well enough to install luxury recliner seats. The marquee says the new seats will be ready by the time X-Men: Apocalypse opens there, first-run, later this month. I'm really glad they're progressing. Ever since the Jackson Heights and Sunnyside theaters closed, neighborhood theaters have felt more and more like an endangered species, so it's nice to see this one not only continue to survive, but grow.

Still plenty of time to get in on the Athletes in Film Blogathon with me and Aurora coming up in June. The lineup is looking pretty good.

Your links for this month:

Once again, Ryan has just the right words to eulogize a dead rock star.

Sometimes, as Raquel recently discovered, the right movie comes along at just the right time.

Jacqueline examines classic film fandom in the television age.

Ivan takes a look at the Thin Man TV series.

Ruth sees A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time.

Pam has a story about a German actor raised as a Nazi, but resisted that life.

Here's a highlight from the Beyond the Cover Blogathon: a video review of the movie and book of The Color Purple.

The TCM Film Fest attracts plenty of young people (some of whom I know by reputation).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Safety Last!

Safety Last!
TCM viewing

When Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for a scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it got a whole lot of attention, and rightly so. At 2722 feet off the ground, it's the tallest building in the world, and the fact that Cruise was willing to do the entire stunt himself likely enticed audiences to see the movie in large numbers. It was a rare feat achieved by one of the world's biggest stars who, by many accounts, is a great perfectionist and diligent worker. It was a stunt that was heavily prepared for in advance, and Cruise was protected by a harness and cable. What if, however, the film required him to climb the whole thing from the ground up?

That's not very likely, no matter what kind of movie one was making or who's in it. However, over ninety years ago, a stunt nearly as death-defying, in its own small way, was made by another big Hollywood star for a very different kind of movie - and it looks every bit as miraculous today as it did then.

Safety Last! starred Harold Lloyd as a guy named, by an amazing coincidence, Harold Lloyd, who goes to the big city to become a success so he can marry his small-town girlfriend. When the only job he can get is as a department store clerk, he lies to his girl in order to make himself seem like a big shot. In the climax, he gets his friend to climb the department store building from the ground up, as a promotional stunt, but when said friend runs into cop trouble, Lloyd is forced to do the stunt in his place.

Lloyd is considered one of the comedy giants of the silent era, along with Chaplin and Keaton. This was the first time I'd seen him, and while he wasn't bad, I gotta say I didn't think he was terribly distinctive from either of those two. He seemed to have Chaplin's innocence and playfulness and Keaton's daredevil streak. I suppose I was looking for something a bit different from either of those two, something more cutting edge, perhaps. Maybe if I saw more of his films I'd find what distinguished him from his peers.

So about that building-climbing stunt: while most of what you see in the finished product is Lloyd, what he actually scaled, according to the 1980 documentary Hollywood, was a fake facade built over the rooftop of a different building. The camera was positioned so that the street below could still be in the shot. Lloyd saw co-star Bill Strother climb a building in LA and was inspired to not only do the same for his movie, but to bring Strother on board as well.

Regardless of how it was done, I was fooled completely. It looks quite convincing, and seeing Lloyd do it without benefit of a harness or cable that could be digitally deleted in post looked strenuous enough. And of course, this scene has been copied and paid homage to in many places since. The rest of the movie is okay. There were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I liked it, although it ends without a resolution to his dilemma with his girlfriend, who still doesn't know the truth about his job. Poor storytelling there. Definitely worth seeing, though, if you've always wanted to know the context for that scene.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

And the Children Shall Lead: Two Nimoy docs

The death of Leonard Nimoy continues to be felt throughout Trek fandom and the world at large, over a year later. Now, his children have chosen to honor his legacy with two different forthcoming documentaries.

Adam Nimoy, an experienced actor, director and author, is helming For the Love of Spock, a doc that started out as a meditation on the Spock character and his impact on the world, but after Leonard's death, it morphed into a much more personal story about Adam and his relationship with his father. As he told
...The thing I kept coming back to is that a lot of fans and family were supportive of the idea that I delve more deeply into my point of view of the whole [Star Trek] experience. That was kind of the unique element that I could bring to the film, that no other documentarian could really tell. And what I tell is... how Spock affected me, the impact of being a celebrity family, my relationship with my dad.... I was at first resistant, but more and more people responded to the idea of making it more of a personal journey.
I wouldn't say Spock had a huge impact on me. By the time I first saw The Original Series on TV as a kid, I was already well receptive to the idea of funny-looking aliens interacting with humans, thanks to comics and other sci-fi TV shows and films. Spock wasn't necessarily unique to me, although I still thought of him as a cool character. I'd say it was more through the movies that I first began to truly understand his importance: his close friendships with Kirk and McCoy, his value to the crew of the Enterprise, and his importance to the Federation and Starfleet. Once I started reading the novels, I understood it even more.

I think what makes Spock special to me is not just his ability to come up with a solution for the dilemma of the week, but the way he's accepted by the Enterprise crew and Kirk in particular despite how different he is. They learn from him as much as he learns from them.

The second Leonard Nimoy doc is headed by Julie Nimoy and her husband David Knight. It deals with the condition that ultimately took her father's life, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD: Highly Illogical - A Special Tribute to Leonard Nimoy charts the origins of the disease as well as how Leonard used his final months to spread awareness of it. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of the disease, and Nimoy was a heavy smoker for years. As Julie told the website Blastr:

...Having a famous dad as an example of someone who had COPD greatly helped us to partner with a number of medical organizations. I thin kthe feeling was if someone like "Mr. Spock"/Leonard Nimoy can get diagnosed with COPD then no one is immune to the disease if they've also followed a similar lifestyle path.

In the past decade-plus, New York has taken steps to curtail the places where one can smoke in public, but in a city as big as this, it's impossible to avoid entirely. For a long time, I was able to tolerate being around cigarette smoke, but now, not as much. I'm more likely to move somewhere else if someone's smoking near me, not so much for health reasons as for the simple fact that I just don't like it, and I don't want to be around someone who's doing it in front of me. (To all my friends who do smoke: nothing personal.)

I may have mentioned here before that I have a Trekkie friend who absolutely cannot be around smokers for health reasons. She can't even tolerate the smell of nicotine on clothing. I've already told her about this doc. I'm pretty sure she'll be quite appreciative of its message.

It's sad that Leonard Nimoy isn't around to help celebrate Trek's half-century mark. It's comforting, though, to know that he's being remembered in a multitude of ways, and these upcoming films made by his children have to be among the most heartfelt.

Axanar and fan fiction
William Shatner's 'Leonard'

Friday, April 22, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!!
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

It just so happens that the main character in my novel is a former baseball player from Texas. I didn't really go into Everybody Wants Some!! expecting to get any further insight into what the life of a Southern college-age jock was like. The machismo, the competitiveness the party lifestyle, and yes, even the subtle homo-eroticism in places, none of it came as much of a surprise, and anyway, we never see my character during his college days in my story. He's a middle-aged man. Still, I was hoping for a little something extra that would further inform my character. I didn't find it, but that's okay. My novel is quite different than this movie.

I like to think that the mirror universe version of me is a jock. My father was an athlete in college, and I've always had a fantasy that I could have been one too, if I hadn't developed an aptitude for art. I was never in little league, but I remember playing a fair amount of softball, in and out of school. I remember thinking that being a left-handed batter must have been some sort of asset.

I had Keith Hernandez' book If at First... and he talked a lot about his batting technique, which I tried to apply to my game. How can you aspire to be a .300 hitter, though, when another lefty player, Darryl Strawberry, is hitting monster home runs left and right? Suffice it to say I was easily swayed.

I think Walter, my character, would've fit in perfectly with the jocks of Richard Linklater's latest movie, at least at the same age. For one thing, he went to college around the same time period, the early 80s. He was just as girl crazy back then, just as much of a hellraiser, and just as committed to winning. Over twenty years later, he's changed considerably, but I think at heart he still sees himself as much the same. In the story, however, he falls for a woman from a higher social class and from a different part of America, and this makes him acutely aware of how different he is, and whether or not he could stand a chance with someone like her. That's just one part of the story, though.

The cast of Everybody includes one black character, which made him stand out rather conspicuously. It made me think that the fictitious Texas college that's the setting for the film probably integrated at a slow pace. Still, he's treated as one of the guys. In the nightclub and party scenes, Linklater didn't feel the need to perpetuate the cliche of automatically pairing him up with the token sister, although not doing so also carries implications, especially in a setting with so few people of color to begin with. Does he prefer white chicks, given a choice? I suppose he could have danced with the token sister as well, but we never see him do so. I really wish I didn't think about stuff like this...

Like its spiritual predecessor, Dazed and Confused, Everybody has a rockin' soundtrack. One almost wonders if movies like these are made just for the nostalgia factor inherent in these soundtracks. As the target audience for movies like this, I almost can't help but respond to scenes like the one where they're singing along to "Rapper's Delight." I mean, the poster for this movie, as you can see at the top, is an image of a mixtape! What I'm saying is that it's catnip for people of my generation. It's almost too easy to get drawn into a movie like this... but I don't care, especially when it's part of a movie as fun as this.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Footlight Parade

Are Ruby and Joanie supposed to be nude
in this poster? Sure looks like it!
Footlight Parade
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

A long time ago, when they used to be shown in venues opulent and lavish enough to be worthy of the name "palaces," movies used to be preceded by live stage shows called "prologues." As I understand it, they were the brainchildren of exhibitors, who put them on as a supplement to the movie, a kind of stage-setter, as it were. Imagine seeing Batman v. Superman at Radio City Music Hall, preceded by a wave of Rockettes parading around in capes and masks and flying around on wires, perhaps, singing an original paean to the American superhero, and you'll get some idea of what the experience was like.

Hollywood producers weren't crazy about prologues, and they did their best to get rid of them by the time sound came to the movies. Why? Money, of course: theaters and performers were getting the moolah that could've been going to the studios through film rentals.

Could prologues work today? I could see them being done in select theaters in New York and L.A., but only in some kind of profit-sharing partnership between the studios and the exhibitors - and certainly not for every movie at every showing. The Force Awakens is a good example of the kind of modern movie a prologue could go well with: a big, mainstream extravaganza aimed at the widest possible audience. Make it part of a Wednesday-night world premiere at places like Radio City or Grauman's TCL Chinese, broadcast it live on YouTube as an hour-long program, complete with backstage interviews before and after the prologue, promote the hell out of it on social media, of course, and you're good to go. I can't see it working any other way in 21st century-Hollywood - but that's okay. Not every idea from the past would work well today.

A prologue would not have felt out of place last Saturday night at the Loew's Jersey, where I saw the movie Footlight Parade, a love letter to the era of prologues, made while they were going into decline (replaced by short subjects like cartoons and newsreels). The Loew's usually precedes their film screenings with a live performance on their Wonder Morton pipe organ, but wouldn't you know it, their usual organist had a gig somewhere else that night. (He did, however, make it to the Loew's in time for the second show, All About Eve. I heard the organ playing as the crowd for that show entered the auditorium.) 

Jimmy Cagney is a developer of prologues who sees the writing on the wall, or perhaps the marquee, when sound comes to the movies. He develops a scheme to keep his business afloat, though it means working his people harder than ever. Are they up to the challenge? Busby Berkeley did the choreography for this one, and as in other films he worked on, like Gold Diggers of 1933, his breathtaking, kaleidoscopic musical numbers are supposed to take place on a simple, ordinary stage within the reality of the movie, although they would have to be arranged in four-dimensional space to even begin to work for a live audience. 

I always find it hilarious whenever I see a movie like this, because no attempt is made to explain it away (and thank Zod for that!); they just cut to the audience in the theater applauding the spectacle they've somehow witnessed the same way we, the movie audience, did. Now that I think about it, though, I think the version we see is perhaps meant to be some kind of "dream" version of the "actual" performance. It's as if the filmmakers said well, filming it exactly as it would appear on a live stage would be boring, so let's jazz it up and make it fit for a movie audience instead. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the rationale.

FLP is a pre-code movie, and as such, there are moments that aren't exactly politically correct. Early in the film, Cagney gets an idea for a prologue called "Slaves of Africa" which would involve dancers in blackface in a jungle setting. Thankfully, we never get to see that, but the fact that he seriously considers that kinda made me squirm. Also, he gets inspired by seeing black kids playing in an open fire hydrant, saying something like (and I'm paraphrasing) "a waterfall on beautiful white bodies." Plus, Ruby Keeler in yellowface... I know stuff like this just reflects the era in which it was made, and I shouldn't take it so seriously - and the fact is, I like this picture a lot, despite moments like this - but it still gives me that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling.

Fortunately, any casual racism in FLP is more than made up for by the joyous presence of Joan Blondell. She plays Cagney's secretary who crushes on him and keeps him on the straight and narrow throughout the story. She totally kicks ass in this film - literally, at one point! She has many of the best lines, and like in Night Nurse, we get to see her undress! In fact, we see lots of ladies dressing and undressing in buses during the climactic third act, when the prologue dancers have to hustle from one theater to another to do three prologues in a single night. (Sure, it's possible. Why not?)

Keeler and Dick Powell made for a cute beta couple, although the whole cliche of Keeler suddenly becoming sexy and desirable once she takes off her glasses was kinda lame. I was willing to buy it though, if it meant seeing her dance with Cagney. And oh yeah, I cannot get enough of seeing Cagney dance. Just can't. What's that you say about a new musical about Cagney...? Also, there was a brief reference in the film to Jersey City, which got a boisterous round of applause from the hometown crowd!

When I wrote about opening credits in movies last month, Le reminded me of credits in films during the pre-code era, some of which would introduce the cast with images of them from the movie. FLP had that, and they did it last in order, after the title card and below-the-line credits, and just before the start of the movie. I have to admit, it was nice. Given the theatrical nature of this movie in particular, it was almost like the cast was coming out on stage to take a curtain call before the movie began.

Ran into Aurora in-between shows. She was there with a friend to see Eve. I might've stayed for it too, but I've seen it at the Loew's before. Aurora was seeing it on the big screen for the fist time and she was mighty excited about it, as any fan of the film would be, I imagine. I'll have to write about that one sooner or later...

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project
IFC viewing

I didn't believe it was real. Not completely. I remember the tremendous hype for it and I remember following it until the release, so I kind of had a pretty good idea that while they were trying to pass The Blair Witch Project off as real, I kinda knew it wasn't. But I wanted it to be real. I remember wanting to believe in it, too, because it was so completely unlike any horror movie - hell, any movie - that had come along. I mean, it made the cover of Time.

I saw it with Jenny on opening day at the Angelika. The line was HUGE. I remember seeing a display in the lobby explaining the extensive "history" of the Blair Witch, and there were people debating whether or not this whole thing was real. By opening day, people still weren't 100 percent sure.

BWP almost made Jenny nauseous with all of the scenes of running with the camera - and she is so not the type to get freaked out by a movie, any movie. But I remember her telling me afterward how uncomfortable she was with all those scenes of them running around in the woods at night. Can't say I blame her. Watching it again for the first time in years, those scenes were still a little unnerving.

BWP came out around the time that reality television was starting to take off, thanks to shows like The Real World and Survivor. At the time, I still thought it was a minor fad that would never really catch on, but in a way, BWP showed why it blew up. Heather, Mike and Josh were convincing because they really were hiking through the woods and filming themselves, but they were also improvising from within a rough outline written by directors Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick. The film-within-a-film aspect allowed them to make the movie dirt cheap. No doubt network execs found this sort of thing appealing.

And now much of network and cable television is dominated by this aesthetic, in one form or another. During my recent hospital stay, I got re-acquainted with reality TV for awhile - not by choice. The TV in my room had very limited options. I actually found myself drawn to the Animal Planet channel. There was a show about different kinds of dogs and how to distinguish them that wasn't bad. It made me think of my friend Lynn, who owns a service dog (and was actually featured on Animal Planet once).

There was another show that was not unlike BWP: these dudes go hiking not in the woods but in the mountains, in search of some kind of legendary treasure, if memory serves. I forget the title and I'm not sure what it has to do with animals. Anyway, we see footage of them climbing through caves and down rivers and over rock faces and all this stuff, and there are points where they bicker, just like the protagonists of BWP. Like The Real World and Survivor, there are also interview segments, presumably taken, after their little adventure, so we can see them provide commentary to their story. 

Like BWP, reality was manipulated to fit the design of a "storyline." For instance: will Jack and Joe make it to such-and-such a location on the mountain before the storm hits? Footage of their hike is spoon-fed to us a bit at a time and edited just so, in order to fill an hour, complete with commentary from other members of the expedition and a few "experts" for added context. While it was entertaining, to a certain degree, I couldn't help wondering how much manipulation of the actual footage - real people doing things that can't be faked, just like with BWP - was being done, like I do whenever I happen to stare at a reality TV program.

In re-watching BWP, I was aware of Heather's role as camera operator in certain emotionally charged scenes. For instance, when Mike admits to throwing the map away and Josh blames her for getting them lost in the first place, she's furious. She physically charges Josh, trying to attack him, but she's also holding the camera, and you can sort of tell that she's trying to keep him within the frame at the same time. At least, that's how it looked to me. Heather, Mike and Josh are actors within the movie, but they're also their own DPs, and in trying to balance both tasks at the same time, sometimes the "reality" of the story gets compromised.

BWP is a movie that would be difficult to pull off today, in the age of social media giving away every last secret of a movie. Plus, the ubiquity of cell phones makes it harder to get lost (Heather was right about that much when she says it's hard to get lost in America these days) - though who knows if you could get a signal that deep in the woods?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

28 Days Later

28 Days Later
IFC viewing

Why do we love zombies? They've always been around in one form or another, long before Night of the Living Dead made them cool, but they seem to be on an upswing these days. The Walking Dead, of course, is a big reason why; a show so popular it has spawned a spin-off. I was a big fan of the original comic book for quite awhile, but I had to stop reading because it became painful to see all the crap Rick, the protagonist, goes through. No joke. So what is it about the flesh-eating legions of the undead that keep (most of) us coming back for more?

I think the roots of the answer can be found in 28 Days Later. The template for The Walking Dead can be found here, for starters: the zombies are scary, no doubt, but there's also a strong emphasis on the world around them, the devastation they've wrought and the cost in human spirit, and the capacity of the survivors to maintain a hold on civilization, specifically, which lines they will and won't cross to stay alive. All of that can be found here, in a film that makes George Romero's walking dead look like Teletubbies.

Technically, the "zombies" of 28DL aren't zombies in the traditional sense. One doesn't have to die and be reborn to be infected by the virus which changes humans into twitching, screaming freaks of nature. They only have to be exposed to their blood. The effect is the same, though, and by having them be able to run after their victims instead of lurch dead-eyed and lethargic, it ups the terror factor considerably. I remember how surprised I was at the concept when I first heard about this movie.

There's just something about apocalyptic scenarios that fascinates people. For one thing, it gives us a chance to speculate on how modern (Western) society would do when stripped of its creature comforts and forced to go back to basics like our primitive ancestors. It seems like we're always one step away from such a life anyway; I remember the avian bird flu scare from when I was living in Columbus and how that got people rattled. More recently, there was an ebola scare running around these parts. Whether it's by nature or man-made, epidemics of one sort or another are always threatening us on some level, though none have raised people from the dead (yet).

Zombie movies also let us confront our fears about mortality. Death is usually The End, but in this case it isn't; death means coming back as a monster that preys on the living, and that monster could be your lover, your family member or your best friend. How do you deal with that? How do you stand seeing your loved one suffer and knowing there's nothing you can do to ease their pain except kill them (again)? The challenge of 28DL and TWD is in finding a way to make life meaningful even in the face of utter hopelessness. That's a powerful metaphor.

Director Danny Boyle makes great use of cinematography to show the chaos of a zombie attack: POV shots, low-level camera angles and out-of-control, swirling shots that imply certain murderous acts taking place quickly and suddenly. The effect is disorienting. You wanna see what's happening, but at the same time you don't wanna see as well.