Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Whiplash

Whiplash
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York NY
10.12.14

I was thirteen years old when I entered high school and took the freshman drawing class. I majored in art, you see, and it was my specialized course of study throughout high school. The teacher I had, to quote the Eagles, had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude. He was this middle-aged sourpuss of an instructor whom everyone dreaded. He was acerbic, bitterly sarcastic and merciless. In his class, everything had to be done his way if you expected any chance of passing. I hated the guy with a passion.

But he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

One of his assignments was a still life; fruits and vegetables in front of drapery, and I worked big - probably 18" x 24". I worked super hard on it. It was my first few months in this prestigious high school that lots of kids aspired to get into, and I was anxious about doing well and seeing how good an artist I could be. The finished product was one of the most sophisticated works of art I had done in my brief life, and I was certain the teacher would like it.

He hated it. I don't remember his exact words in describing it, and I don't remember the level of sarcasm he threw my way in critiquing it, but I do recall feeling irritated and deflated and embarrassed - until he explained why my still life was no good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nosotros amamos Ricardo Montalban

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen y Movie Star Makeover. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

"My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island!"

And with a beverage raised in salute, the mysterious yet charismatic host played by Ricardo Montalban welcomed television viewers every week to his tropical getaway resort where dreams literally come true... for a price. I watched Fantasy Island all the time, coming on right after The Love Boat on Saturday nights. It was an easier show for me as a kid to grasp, I think, than the more adult-oriented Love Boat, with all its silly shipboard romances and 70s-style hanky panky. I probably watched it more for the celebrity guest stars than anything else.


Montalban, circa 1951.
You're welcome, ladies.
Fantasy Island, however, was wish-fulfillment of a different kind. If it were made in 2014, it would no doubt have an ongoing "mythology" built around the secret of how the island works, who Mr. Roarke really is, and similar crap like that, a la Lost. But it didn't need any of that silliness back then. The vaguely Twilight Zone-light premise was enough for the show to be entertaining, for me and a lot of other viewers, and a big reason why was the presence of a smooth operator like Montalban. (Yes, I'm aware of the rebooted version with Malcolm McDowell; it never interested me much.)

For the Mexico City native, it was the latest turn in a long career that stretched back to the early 40s. Born in 1920 as Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino, he moved from Mexico to Hollywood as a teen, where his brother Carlos was pursuing a film career. Ricardo learned English in the process, and eventually, they went east to New York, where he did some stage work for a time. Back in Mexico, he built a career in the film industry there until he caught MGM's attention. His debut Hollywood film, 1947's Fiesta, was with Esther Williams. From there, he did a lot of "Latin Lover"-type roles, as well as various other stereotypical Hispanic (and occasional non-Hispanic) roles. In the mid-50s, he returned to the stage, earning a Tony nomination for the 1957 musical Jamaica, with Lena Horne. He would return to the stage periodically for decades afterward.


Montalban as Khan in Star Trek
In the 60s, Montalban was immersed in television, and among the many shows he appeared in, including Playhouse 90, Bonanza, The Loretta Young Show, The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE, there was, of course, his unforgettable turn in an original Star Trek episode as the genetically-enhanced superman Khan. (Little known fact: in 1956, Montalban appeared on the TV show Chevron Hall of Stars in a sci-fi episode called "The Secret Defense of 117," written by none other than future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.)

Khan was a conqueror from a period in Earth's history where war and internal conflict still ran rampant between nations. In the episode, Mr. Spock is appalled to discover that Captain Kirk admires the man in a way, despite his brutality, because that barbarism is part of humanity's nature, even in a future society where humanity is unified in peace. Montalban has some great scenes, especially the ones in which he attempts to match wits with Kirk and Spock over dinner, and also when he seduces a young woman lieutenant into doing his will. Watching him closely, one can see that his performance is very much in the eyes. Years later, of course, he would return to this role in the second Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, revered by genre fans as a modern classic.


Montalban w/Herve Villechaize,
from Fantasy Island
Fantasy Island's Mr. Roarke, by contrast, was much lighter, but even here there were places where he gave the character a certain edge. Rare is the TV show these days in which a mystery remains a mystery for long, and I don't think it hurt the show to keep Mr. Roarke - or, for that matter, his diminutive sidekick Tattoo - an enigma. Re-watching it on YouTube, I still found it enjoyable. It was a product of its time, reflecting the tastes of executive producer Aaron Spelling, of Charlie's Angels and The Love Boat fame. Apparently, ABC initially wanted Orson Welles as Mr. Roarke. Can you imagine?

In the 80s, Montalban also enjoyed a stretch as a recurring character on Dynasty, and its spin-off, The Colbys, playing a European shipping tycoon with the unlikely name of Zach Powers. The only clips of him in the show that I could find on YouTube were dubbed into Spanish, so I can't attest to how he was on the show, but I imagine he fit in well with the rest of the cast.

Montalban continued to appear in films as well as TV, including Sweet Charity (with Shirley MacLaine), two Planet of the Apes movies, and The Naked Gun, plus his Emmy-winning role in the TV mini-series How the West Was Won, but he wanted better roles for himself and for other Latinos. In 1970, he and several other Latino actors founded the Nosotros Foundation, which strove to improve acting opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood. The Golden Eagle Awards were started by the Foundation to honor Latino actors and it's held at the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood as part of the Nosotros American Latino Film Festival.

Back in 1951, while filming a Western, Montalban fell off a horse, and was trampled by another one. As a result, he sustained a back injury that never healed. In 1993, after nine hours of spinal surgery, he was paralyzed below the waist and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. However, this did not adversely affect his career. He continued to appear on TV (also doing voice work for animated series) and film, including two Spy Kids movies from Latino director Robert Rodriguez.

Montalban died in 2009 at age 88. As a Trekkie, I, of course, tend to think of him as Khan first (a role which that other guy can never replace), and indeed, it's perhaps his best-known role, but he had a rich and vibrant career, one in which he overcame Latino stereotypes imposed on him to become a respected and beloved actor to several generations of film and television lovers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY
10.7.14


SPOILERS



Can't talk about this movie without them. Sorry.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Devil's Rain

The O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

The Devil's Rain
seen online via YouTube

The first impression most people have of him is that acting style of his. It defined his most popular role when he was young and in his prime: a kind of stop-and-start cadence in which he'd carefully punctuate... certain...words, andthenspeedup! In that sense, he was a bit of a throwback to movie actors of the past, whose distinctive voices and mannerisms marked them from one movie to the next - unlike today, where actors are generally expected to be more chameleon-like in their roles.

I can't say that it ever bothered me. I noticed it, of course, but I don't recall ever thinking it was that unusual an affectation. I suppose I might have thought it had more to do with his signature character than with the man himself, but I couldn't make such distinctions back then. It was enough that I even knew his name.

He has such a strong sense of himself. Some who have worked with him have called it ego, and perhaps they're right. I would guess that he'd say that one needs a healthy dose of bravado to survive as long as he has in show business. Still, he has rubbed some people the wrong way over the years, and while that's unfortunate, to say the least, I try not to judge him for it. After all...

...no one could take on a ship full of Klingon warriors like he could.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The unexpected virtue of linkage

So there's this local literary magazine called Newtown Literary. It's still relatively new, but it's already built a bit of a rep for attracting Queens writers for short stories and poetry. The theme for their next issue is sci-fi/fantasy.

Guess who's gonna be in it.

Yep! I had had my eye on getting in the mag before, possibly by submitting a piece from WSW, but they only take original, unpublished work (a post on a blog counts as being published), so what I did was, I crafted a short story loosely inspired by a post - in this case, the one on the movie The Terminal. It's a story set in the "near future," in which teleportation technology replaces airplane travel. I didn't have a whole lot of time to write it, and I wasn't entirely sure it ranked among the best stuff I've ever written, but I just wanted to give it a try and see what happens. Lo and behold, they liked it more than I expected they would!

Don't know when exactly the next issue will come out yet, but it should be sometime this fall. I'll let you all know as soon as I do.

In other news: I've decided - and this is probably something I should've done long ago - that not every post about a new movie has to be a long essay. For whatever reason, sometimes I find I can't go deep on a movie at the time I'm ready to write about it, so from now on, whenever this happens, I'll simply write shorter posts. You've no doubt already noticed this by now in my posts for Life Itself and Love is Strange. This only applies to new movies; if I have this problem with an older movie, chances are I'll end up not writing about it at all.


And speaking of writing: at this point, I don't think I'll participate in National Novel Writing Month again this year. I took part in it last year mostly to see if I could do it. I never had a burning desire to write a novel, but recently, in looking at my NaNoWriMo draft from last year, I've found a new way to approach the revision process, and I'd much rather continue doing that than to start a brand new draft which may or may not even become anything. From what I saw of other people involved in NaNo, a number of them seem to enjoy the process of writing a first draft under these unusual conditions more than taking the time to work on revising what they have into a presentable, finished manuscript. I could be wrong, but that's what it seemed like to me. I'd rather polish my draft instead.

Also, on my WSW Tumblr page, you can see pics from the Jackson Heights street named, in a ceremony last Saturday, for Manny Balestrero, the "Wrong Man" of the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

Your links for this month:


Will really, really, REALLY likes pre-code movies.

Le watches Birth of a Nation so you don't have to (and raises some points about the film that I never knew before). Google Translate required, as usual.

Ivan writes about a Gordon Parks Jr. movie featuring Irene Cara in her film debut.

Pam looks fabulous as an extra in the Denzel Washington movie The Equalizer.

Jennifer talks about the real-life Civil War-era train that inspired two classic movies - and where you can see it today.

The Museum of Modern Art has discovered an early silent film with a black cast.

WB/DC looks like they're gonna resist the urge to tie their superhero movies and TV shows into a single shared universe.

Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable may have been the stars of Gone With the Wind, but upon reflection of the film for its 75th anniversary, there's no question who embodies the movie's heart.

12 Years a Slave will be used in high school classrooms to teach students about slavery.

And finally, congratulations going out to my pal Joanne who's tying the knot with her longtime beau.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
9.27.14

And now, five things I thought about while watching Singin' in the Rain:

1. There's just something about musicals. When they're done right, that is. I don't seek them out, most of the time. It's not like I'm crazy for them or anything, but the best of them have a way of making you just feel good about life, as silly as that may sound. And while there are modern musicals that I adore, such as Dreamgirls and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rent, the older ones, especially the MGM ones, had something more to them. It was spectacle to the nth degree, and I think the studios embraced that aspect more back then.

2. Even though I had already seen this film several times before, for some reason, I had this image of Donald O'Connor being much older than he actually was. Don't know why. I know now that he started out as a child actor, and that he starred in series of films featuring a talking mule named Francis (it was a different time back then) before appearing in Rain, and he had his own TV show at one point. 




Where I got the impression that he was a middle-aged man instead of being 27, which he would've been when Rain came out, I couldn't tell you. I am kinda surprised, looking at his IMDB page, that he didn't make bigger movies following the success of Rain. He had the looks to be a romantic lead. Instead, he kept making Francis movies. He did play Buster Keaton in a biopic of the man, but apparently, it's not very accurate. That said, "Make 'em Laugh" remains my favorite part of the movie.

3. I thought about The Artist, naturally, and the things I've learned about the silent movie era since. That transitional period when sound came into movies was such a fundamental change in the industry. I don't think anything else in the history of the medium compares to it. These days, we've seen Hollywood go from 35mm film to digital production, and that's had a profound impact on how movies are seen and distributed, but I don't think even that is comparable to how sound changed everything. I'm thinking of the sequence where Lina keeps trying to perform a scene with Don with sound, and how she keeps missing the microphone no matter how close the director puts it near her. It's funny to us now, but those really were the kinds of problems they faced back then.



4. I had no idea Rita Moreno was in this movie. Hers is a small part, but still.

5. Gene Kelly took lots of chances as a dancer and as a director. The performance of the song "Singin' in the Rain" is so iconic now, but as a performance, it must have seemed unusual at the time. I mean, he really gets himself soaking wet in that number, splashing around in puddles and swinging his umbrella around and around like he does, all while dancing. How would you choreograph something like that if you'd never seen it done before? How many rehearsals would it take to get it just right? But that's the kind of approach he took throughout his career, pushing the boundaries of what kind of dancing he could do in a movie, and how it could be filmed. This is the guy, after all, who danced with a cartoon mouse and made it look realistic.

You don't need me to tell you what an amazing movie this is, though. I had forgotten just how good it is, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, seeing it on a big screen with an enthusiastic audience makes all the difference in the world. It's the way it was meant to be seen, which goes back to the point I made about how musicals like this embrace spectacle. You don't get that feeling from watching this on an iPhone.



This was the first weekend of the fall movie season for the Loew's JC, and this outing was significant for me because starting next month, the fare for the PATH train, the subway line connecting midtown Manhattan with north Jersey, will go up again, from $2.50 to $2.75. That's more than the New York transit system (for the moment), and I have a feeling that this is gonna affect how often I go to the Loew's from now on. 

When I started going to the Loew's on a semi-regular basis a few years ago, the PATH fare was $2.25, and that, of course, was on top of the $2.25 I was paying ($2.50 now) for riding the bus and subway - together, not separately. PATH has been struggling in recent years. When the Super Bowl was held at the New Jersey Meadowlands, PATH, and New Jersey Transit in general, was expected to handle a much larger load of passengers than usual, and they did a less than stellar job of servicing them. Coming after their inadequate response to Hurricane Sandy, this gave the transit system a huge black eye that they've yet to fully recover from. From time to time, I had considered moving to north Jersey one day. Now I'm not so sure.



I think I may become a lot more selective from now on as to what movies to see at the Loew's, not because of the theater itself, which remains as remarkable now as it was the first day I walked into it, but because getting there is about to become more expensive. I hate that with a passion, because I love the Loew's and I wanna continue to support it, now more than ever.

And on that note, host and Friends of the Loew's (FOL) head Colin Egan had no news to report on the struggle his group has had with the Jersey City government for control of the theater, but it's just as well, because Saturday night was more of a festive occasion. This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Loew's JC, and in his introduction to Rain, Egan spoke eloquently of the history of the theater and of his group's efforts to preserve the theater, to strong and warm applause. Indeed, there was a big crowd for Saturday's doubleheader; the second feature being Sunset Boulevard. The line for that one stretched all the way down the block!


This one was a little rushed, because I took it before I left,
so it's not as pristine as the others, but what the hey.

And Aurora was there! I'm so lucky to have seen so many classic movies this year, on both sides of the Hudson, with someone who loves them as deeply as she does. She was pretty excited about seeing Sunset on the big screen, and can you blame her? She wrote about the Loew's 85th on her site, which includes some great pics of the theater from back in the day, so check that out when you're done here. Also: here's a short video she made from inside the lobby of the Loew's (which I am in).

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Related:
Little Fugitive
He Who Gets Slapped

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Drop

The Drop
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY
9.23.14

This post on the movie The Drop goes out to my pal Page, who, as I discovered last week, is a big Tom Hardy fan.

[audience]
"Hooooow biiiiig IS she?"
[/audience]

She's such a big Tom Hardy fan she sat through This Means War. The movie that made him swear off rom-coms forever. And can you blame him?

Anyway, Page compared him to Paul Newman. She saw Locke earlier this year - really wish I saw that one - but she says it was boring. Also, she wants the world to know that Lawless is an outstanding film and that everyone should see it, and that she would never, EVER, compare anyone to someone like Newman without checking out their body