Thursday, September 13, 2018

Remembering a legend with the Neil Simon Blogathon

I never had the pleasure to see a Neil Simon play live, but it wasn't until the news of his death last month that I looked over the stories he wrote, for the stage and screen, and realized how many of them I've enjoyed. He may not have been flashy, but he wrote delightful, funny and poignant stories about ordinary people like you and me — and I realized a simple eulogy wasn't enough.

Normally I only do one blogathon a year, but I'm breaking that habit in order to give all of us a chance to celebrate the life and career of an American original with this blogathon. And there's no one I'd rather do this one in particular with than my pal Paddy.

So you know the deal: in the comments here or at Paddy's, let us know what you wanna write about: one of Neil Simon's plays, or film adaptations, or original screenplays, or his life in general. It's up to you. We'll collect them all on the weekend of October 13-14. Duplicates are okay.

I'll write about Brighton Beach Memoirs. Paddy's gonna write about some Simon-written episodes of The Phil Silvers Show.

The banner at the top is the only one for now. (Many thanks to Ruth for a last-minute save!)

Amy's Rib: A Life of Film, Murder by Death
The Stop Button, The Cheap Detective
In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, Barefoot in the Park
Once Upon a Screen, Chapter Two
Poppity Talks Classic Film, Seems Like Old Times
Critica Retro, The Odd Couple
Maddy Loves Her Classic FilmsCalifornia Suite
Slightly Scarlet, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers
Moon in Gemini, The Heartbreak Kid (1962)

Realweegiemidget ReviewsThe Goodbye Girl

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Farmer's Daughter

The Joseph Cotten Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actor, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

The Farmer's Daughter
YouTube viewing

Sometimes the timing of when one watches a movie can make a difference in one's perception of that movie. I chose The Farmer's Daughter for this blogathon knowing nothing of its plot. (You're just gonna have to take my word on that.)

I watched it last week: it's the story of a woman, an outsider, drawn into the world of politics, who ends up opposing a career insider with money and connections, despite her lack of experience in the field. Sound familiar?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Primary links

The New York State primary election is this month, and on paper, Cynthia Nixon's chances for becoming governor don't look good. Despite the groundswell of online support for her, rooted largely in her constant and justifiable criticism of incumbent Andrew Cuomo, she remains way behind in the polls.

There's still plenty of skepticism over whether Nixon, Hollywood actress and double-Emmy winner, has what it takes to run a state, but if nothing else, she's helped raise the consciousness of many people, both here in New York State and beyond, about some important issues — education, housing, marijuana legalization, and yes, the dreaded NYC subway — and she's proven that being a celebrity is not automatically an impediment when it comes to running for office, despite the presence of the one in the White House now.

For what it's worth, I intend to vote for her (in the primary, at least). She's earned my respect.

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Last month, I learned how to sing in a chorus. There's a choral singing workshop Virginia attends every year in Massachusetts. She heard me sing months ago, as part of a group, and invited me to attend the workshop with her.

Now, I admit, I can carry a tune, but my sister is the singer in the family, not me. I've taken part in talent contests back when I was younger and contemplated a career as a musician — I have a keyboard and have taken lessons on the organ — but that doesn't make me Billy Joel by any stretch. Still, I was curious, and it provided an opportunity to travel with Virginia for the first time (we also visited friends of hers in Vermont).

The first day was the worst. Singing in Latin? Reading sheet music on sight? Focusing on my part while everyone around me sung different parts? I was angry, confused and lost and felt like I was letting Virginia down, since she was paying my way. She kept encouraging me, though, and against my instincts, I persisted.

Thanks to a terrific teacher, I got over my fear. He took my shaky bass voice and made it presentable through humor, patience and mostly by example. In addition, I found a song I genuinely liked, and wanted to sing. By the time my small ensemble performed for the other teachers, I was ready — and I even got some compliments! Virginia was impressed too, which meant more to me than anything.

Don't know for sure if I wanna keep up with this, but at least I can say I did it.

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The original film version
of The Band's Visit
Virginia and I also went to see the Broadway musical The Band's Visit, based on the Israeli film from 2007. I never saw the movie; don't even remember it, but it got a 98 on Rotten Tomatoes. As a Broadway show it has enjoyed even more success, winning the Tony for Best Musical, and after seeing it, I can see why.

The premise is simple: a small Egyptian orchestra, invited to perform at a show in Israel, arrive in the wrong town. They spend a night with the locals and change a few lives in the process. It should have been Israel's entry in the Best Foreign Film Oscar race, but it was disqualified on account of having too much English.

In December 2016, the musical adaptation debuted off-Broadway and moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theater almost a year later. The version we saw last month had original production stars Katrina Lenk and Ari'el Stachel, who won Tonys, as well as Sasson Gabay, star of the original film.

We both loved the show. It was an exquisite, character-driven production with Arabic and Israeli flavored music; the whole thing felt different from what one normally thinks of as a Broadway musical. I still would like to see fewer film adaptations and more original material, but for what this was, it's the real thing.

More after the jump.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Too Many Husbands

The Fred MacMurray Blogathon is an event in tribute to the life and career of the actor, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site at the link.

Too Many Husbands
YouTube viewing

Fred MacMurray is best remembered as a comedic actor and a good guy, but I tend to think of him, in cinematic terms, as a bad guy. It's all Billy Wilder's fault, for casting him in two dramatic films, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, where he plays scumbags.

The latter film in particular is a good example. He takes advantage of both Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, less as a sneering villain and more with a deceptive charm. He uses them to serve his own ends and he comes across so reasonably in the process; his perpetual nice-guy image is turned inside out. Double may be his most popular film role, but I think The Apartment is his best.

And then there's My Three Sons. The early TV sitcom gave MacMurray's career a second wind, lasting twelve seasons. There's little more than snippets of the show on YouTube, but I watched them for this blogathon. The impression I get is Sons was warm and gentle. The kids seemed unrealistically well-behaved, but gosh, maybe MacMurray's character was just that good a father. A single one, no less.

Perhaps you know MacMurray played the saxophone. He played in a few bands while attending college in Wisconsin. He also sang a little. Here he is in 1930, singing with Gus Arnheim and the Coconut Grove Orchestra.

And I would be remiss if I forgot the comics connection. Remember Captain Marvel? Little kid says "Shazam," turns into an adult superhero? (Perhaps this trailer for the forthcoming Shazam film will jog your memory.) Creator CC Beck modeled CM on MacMurray. Once you see it, you can't un-see it.

Today's subject, Too Many Husbands, is an early MacMurray comedy that's more of a vehicle for the delightful Jean Arthur. Drowned at sea and believed dead, MacMurray survives and returns home a year later only to find Arthur, his wife, moved on without him and married his best friend, Melvyn Douglas.

Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt needed less than ten minutes to settle this problem in Cast Away. Arthur and company take an entire movie, though in fairness, the whole thing is as fluffy as a pillow.

It's watchable, thanks to Arthur; MacMurray and Douglas just bicker and make goo-goo eyes at her. Would you believe Irene Dunne and Cary Grant made essentially the same movie, My Favorite Wife, in the same year, 1940?

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Other Fred MacMurray movies:
Remember the Night
Double Indemnity

Monday, August 20, 2018

Requiem for the video store, part 4: Blockbuster

...Pick up. Drop off. It was, for many, a daily experience. Blockbuster made it easy for you, with mailbox-like units that you could deposit your used movies in like letters. You didn’t even have to get out of your car. You pulled up, rolled down your window…
And in writing this, I realize how absolutely ancient that must seem to a teenager.

It's true, there was a time, not that long ago, when Blockbuster Video stores were as ubiquitous as Starbucks cafes. Hard to believe that time has passed, but how can you compete with online streaming? Still, I never thought the day would come when BB would generate not only nostalgia, but sympathy.

BB as the underdog, the analog lone wolf struggling to survive in a digital wilderness? Under other circumstances, I might be more  sympathetic. Fact is, though, my history within video retail gives me a different perspective, because for many years, BB was the enemy.

I worked at three independent video stores from 1996-2003 (plus a six-month stretch at Tower Records in 1995, where I split time in the video and music departments), and one thing the customers at each indie had in common was their gratitude we weren't BB.

I'd hear it all the time. Maybe it was  because it was New York City, and we tend to get indie and foreign films before most places (and for a longer time), but I dealt with customers who demanded more than just mainstream Hollywood cinema — and BB didn't supply it as much or as often as we did.

That made a big difference in all three indie stores in which I worked, though in the end, BB won out through sheer strength in numbers. When I worked at the Third Avenue store, a BB opened on Second Avenue, on the same block as us, but I don't remember feeling seriously threatened. I believed we could compete with them, in large part, because so many of our customers hated BB and wanted nothing to do with them.

Oh, yeah, that's another thing: BB, like other national chain businesses, set up shop in locations where their (smaller) competition, like us, was already established, so that they could be top dog in time. They could afford to wait, too. Funny how none of the articles I've seen about the last BB standing mention little details like that.

And y'know, props to the Bend, Oregon BB for keeping their doors open this long and surviving in the age of Netflix, but as someone who actively worked against them for eight years, I can't forget the old days that easy. One day, sooner rather than later, the last Blockbuster Video will die, too... but the end will come far, far too late for me.

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Previously:
part 1
part 2
part 3

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Oscars and the art vs. commerce debate

Okay, I read all about this lame new Oscar category for "Best Popular Film" or whatever it'll be called, and I've given it some thought. I get that the Academy and ABC felt they needed to do something to make the Oscars relevant again, and I get that it's called show business for a reason, but this was not the answer. Columns like this reflect my position well. That said, I wanna examine this from a more personal angle.

In my former life, within the comics industry, I had begun my activity at a time, the early 90s, when what was popular truly was mediocre at best. I was in college, and my classmates and I were frustrated at this because we were getting lessons in the fundamentals of art and comics storytelling from industry veterans who didn't fall prey to trends.

Movies like Black Panther would be
a shoo-in for this new Oscar category.
Some of us young turks worked within the system, at Marvel and DC, to help bring about change. Most of us, like me, worked from outside by self-publishing our work or hooking up with small press publishers.

I didn't want to compromise my art by being a slave to trends, but you can bet your ass I still wanted to make money. I believe in the 21st century, it's rare, though not impossible, to find creative people who don't want or expect compensation for their work, but much depends on the audience and what they (think they) want.

"Best Popular Film" could have
benefitted recent blockbusters like Avatar.
With movies, a lot of the time they settle for what's most easily available, true, but these days, it's not uncommon to see a popular indie film playing alongside the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. (Over the past few weeks, I've seen Three Identical Strangers playing in small town, three-screens-or-fewer cinemas.)

Does that mean we, the audience, have become conditioned to choose the popular over the unpopular? Probably. If TCM is on, I'd sooner watch a Jack Lemmon flick over some B-movie starring actors I've never heard of. If I'm in the supermarket, I'd sooner buy a familiar brand name product than a generic version of the same thing. I think it's an inherent aspect of consumerism: the product that advertises better sells better.

As I learned with comics, however, popular doesn't always equal better, a mentality I had adopted for years and have found difficult to shake. In the mid-90s, I watched more indie films, in part, because that's what my video store co-workers, whom I was trying to emulate, watched. They tended to scorn Hollywood and I copped that attitude too.

Will future films like the new Star Wars
films profit from this category?
Most moviegoers, though, aren't like that. If they were, films like Spotlight and Lady Bird and Won't You Be My Neighbor would each make $100 million — and it's not like these films are inaccessible, artsy-fartsy meditations for aesthetes.

The Academy continues to honor these "art" films with Oscars over the "commercial" ones, though, and while we may wish this false dichotomy didn't exist, it does — and not just within the film industry.

Can the playing field be leveled so that all films, large- and small-budgeted alike, compete as true equals? Online streaming could hold the key to the answer. It may mean tearing down the old distribution model, which would make me sad — I enjoy seeing a movie in a theater — but maybe that's what it'll take. In the meantime, I don't see the art versus commerce struggle changing much.