Friday, February 17, 2017

Uptown Saturday Night

The 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actor, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Uptown Saturday Night
Netflix rental

There's no doubt about it: Sidney Poitier is a living legend. Before Denzel, Will, Eddie and Richard, there was Sidney, redefining what a black actor could do in a Hollywood film for a long time.

By the 70s, black cinema had established a niche and it slowly expanded. "Blaxploitation" may sound like a negative term (for years, I had thought it was), but the movies exemplified by this sub-genre, while trashy, were vibrant, empowering and had attitude to spare. In 1974, Poitier decided he wanted in on the fun.



Two years earlier, Poitier had made his directing debut with the Western Buck and the Preacher, with Harry Belafonte. Now they got together with rising TV star Bill Cosby for a crime comedy written by notable playwright Richard Wesley, Uptown Saturday Night. Poitier and Cosby would team up for two more movies in the 70s, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.

I've learned to appreciate blaxploitation films, formulaic as most of them were. I think Shaft and Super Fly would be hits today (yes, I know about the Shaft remake), while Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is such a singular reflection of its time and its culture that it almost transcends the sub-genre. Most blaxploitation flicks didn't want to do anything more than entertain, and that's totally cool.



USN was made during a time when it was still rare (well, rarer) to see black people free to be themselves on a big screen. I have no doubt it filled a wide gap at the box office. Black audiences of its day probably responded warmly to seeing so many talented black stars in one movie...

...but this movie sucked. I'm sorry. For a picture with so many funny people, it's almost painfully unfunny. I watched this with my pals John and Sue, and they agreed.

The premise is this: Poitier and Cosby, while hanging out in the local house of ill repute, are robbed, along with everyone else, by a group of armed thieves. Within Poitier's nicked wallet, however, is a winning lottery ticket (which we never see him buy). The two of them go on a citywide search for the thieves, which eventually leads them to the doorstep of an unrecognizable Belafonte, playing a Don Corleone-like gangster.



Wesley's screenplay meanders all over the place with little direction or focus. Characters come and go - Richard Pryor here, Flip Wilson there (his film debut) - that do little to further the plot, such as it is.

Poitier's direction is unimaginative. In one scene, for example, he and Cosby are accosted by thugs. The camera stays fixed in one position while the two of them move in and out of the frame, wrestling with their respective thugs. Poitier and Cosby want to be Redford and Newman, but the plot doesn't hold together well enough to be The Sting, no matter how many colorful characters they meet.



A brief word about Cosby. Watching him in a movie wasn't as painful as I had thought it might be (despite the thick and unruly beard he sports). He was a welcome part of my childhood for many years: a black celebrity with crossover appeal, yet one who never forgot his roots, who appeared to stand for something positive. I have too many good memories of watching him on television for them to be easily erased by the things they now say about him, the damning accusations leveled against him. Celebrity worship is a dangerous thing. We just don't know who these people really are behind their pretty smiles and good deeds.

There has been talk of a USN remake for years. As recently as 2013, Variety reported a screenplay rewrite meant to "fast-track" pre-production. Anchorman and The Big Short director Adam McKay would direct, with Will & Denzel to star. I'd love to see the two of them in a movie together, and USN can only be improved by a remake, as far as I'm concerned. It looks like it's ended up on the fast track to nowhere, though, at least for now.

--------------------
Other films with Sidney Poitier:
A Raisin in the Sun
No Way Out

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2016 Top 10


Last month, out of curiosity, I counted up the new releases I had seen and written about here, from the past six calendar years, 2011-16. From oldest to newest, the numbers per year are: 48, 34, 33, 30, 20, and 29, for a total of 194 and an average of 32.3. (This total excludes films seen at film festivals.)

48 seems like such an outrageous number now. I know there are a number of reasons why I haven't come close to that total since - finances, greater interest in older movies, less willing to pay for crap. I don't have any great observation to make out of this; I just wanted to do this for the sake of doing it. Anyway, here's my top ten:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Krull

Krull
YouTube viewing

There were a lot of fantasy movies in the 80s - I'm making a clear distinction here from sci-fi (Conan the Barbarian, Clash of the Titans, Time BanditsThe NeverEnding Story, Willow, Splash, etc.) - and I think many of them had a sort of innocence to them that's missing from the genre today. It's hard to explain if you weren't there. These days you have Game of Thrones on TV, with all its carnage and sex, while on the big screen there's The Hunger Games and its copycats, set in bleak, dystopic futures.

The fantasy films of my childhood weren't like that. No doubt as a result of the original Star Wars, which owes at least as much to the familiar tropes of fairy tale fantasy as to sci-fi - and which itself was a reaction to the bleak SF films of the 70s - these movies felt more like simple good-time, PG-rated adventure stories. I'm told there's a current Netflix series called Stranger Things which tries to recapture this vibe to a certain degree, but for the most part, it's less prevalent in modern fantasy.


I remember seeing ads for Krull in my comic books. I think Marvel may have even done an adaptation. I never saw the film until last week. I was prepared to mock it, but it wasn't as bad as I had expected. It's totally derivative of other, better stories - think Star Wars meets King Arthur - but for what it is, it's mildly entertaining. It's a Saturday afternoon matinee movie, not unlike those 60s Sinbad movies, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Journey to the Center of the Earth. It felt like it was in that spirit. The bombastic James Horner music underscored this feeling.


The plot is nothing more than find the weapon of power, recruit allies, save the princess - or queen, in this case; the hero is a very young king. The special effects are minimal; more money was probably spent on props, costumes and set design. (The bad guy's lair, in particular, is really trippy and abstract. The young queen wanders through it like a carnival fun house designed by Salvador Dali.)


The most memorable thing about Krull, I think, may be its location shots. They were filmed in Italy. The vistas are truly breathtaking, especially in the scenes where Ken Marshall climbs a mountain to acquire the ninja throwing star thingie. There are grassy meadows, and forests, but those mountains were really spectacular.

Plus, there's an unexpected bonus: a pre-Darkman Liam Neeson! His is a small role; he's one of a band of thieves Marshall meets along his quest. Neeson gets a small moment or two, but nothing that would make me think one day he'd make Schindler's List. His IMDB page, however, reveals he was in two King Arthur films, Excalibur and a TV film called Arthur the King, in addition to this Arthur-like Krull. Interesting.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Character builder


 ...if I am going to identify with anything, it is usually feelings or emotions or ways of thinking rather than actual characters.... I’ve always thought there was a dearth of certain kinds of personalities, though, and my question has been, do I not identify because people tend not to write about characters who I would identify with, or is it simply the way that I approach books that prevents me from more closely seeing myself in other characters?

This struck me as another "what do we want from our fiction" kind of essay, one that made me think about not only how it applies to movies, but to my own novel - still plugging away at it after three years.

The blogger uses Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and the character Fanny Price as a basis. I have read nothing by Austen, so I can't speak to her points regarding that example. Looking through my library, I find a few books with protagonists who might also be considered passive: Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Louis in Interview with the Vampire, Pecola in The Bluest Eye. I may have found it hard to relate to some of them, but not to sympathize.

Now that I think about it, I can't recall many books in which I truly identified with the protagonist - Hesse's Siddhartha, perhaps - but I don't think that's necessarily a problem. One of the best pieces of fiction-writing advice I've gotten to date is this: it's better to write with one person in mind rather than many. In trying to please a wide audience, the logic goes, one ends up pleasing nobody, so as a writer, one is better off keeping a specific individual in mind and composing one's story accordingly. (I know who I'm writing my novel for based on this concept, but I'm not telling.)

As a reader, the odds of that individual being you are too high to ponder. I tend not to think about it when I'm choosing a book. Nick Hornby's protagonists are generally easier for me to empathize with, despite the occasional cultural differences that come with him being a Brit. Jhumpa Lahiri, however, writes characters pretty far removed from my realm of experience and that doesn't stop me from loving her books. Plus, when you throw sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, the differences are even more pronounced. (At the other extreme, I couldn't get more than fifty pages into A Confederacy of Dunces because I found the protagonist completely unlikable. That book wasn't written for me. C'est la vie.)

With movies, less is left to the imagination because you're watching the story unfold in front of you, rather than putting it together in your mind by reading, so identification is perhaps easier. Hollywood bends over backwards trying to make their movies appeal to broad audiences. Maybe that's why many of them tend to not linger long in the memory despite all the hype generated around them. (I touched on this when I discussed the Russell Crowe Robin Hood.)

I've talked before about how deeply I identify with Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy because of where I was in life when I first saw that film. It's one in which I truly feel as if Kevin Smith wrote it for me - but that's a rare feeling. I suspect the blogger may want to feel it more often from the books she reads, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt that's possible. If it does, great, but I don't think it's worth dwelling on much.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sarah Polley: Stories She Tells


The 2017 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.

It's been a long time since I saw The Sweet Hereafter, but I remember when it came out, what a big deal people made over this Canadian drama. I remember liking the movie, though it's not the kind you wanna watch over and over. It's pretty heavy.

One aspect of the film that lingers in the memory, however, is the performance of former child star and Canadian TV actress Sarah Polley. The Toronto native had bounced back and forth between the small and big screens, at home and abroad (perhaps you saw her at age four in Terry Gillam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) before Hereafter made her famous.

Polley in The Sweet Hereafter
While she has had flirtations with Hollywood and American cinema in general (perhaps you saw her in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake), she is better known north of the 49th Parallel, as much for her political activism (she once lost two teeth in the middle of a protest in Toronto) as for her acting.

I'm here to talk about her second career as a writer-director. It began in 1999, two years after the release of Hereafter, with two short films. I couldn't find Don't Think Twice anywhere online, but the other, The Best Day of My Life, is available on YouTube. A tale of teen angst and unrequited love, it was part of the On the Fly Festival, a showcase for films shot in a day, edited in a day, and screened in a day.

Given these time restrictions, Polley did a good job. There are some nice visual compositions, and she even changes from black & white to color at a key moment in the story.

Polley on the set of Away From Her
Two years later, another short, I Shout Love, a marriage-in-crisis drama, won the Genie (the Canadian Oscar) for Best Live Action Short Drama, as well as the ACTRA (the Canadian Emmy) for Outstanding Performance, Female, after it aired on the CBC in 2002. The IMDB reviews make it sound really good.

In a 2010 Indiewire interview, Polley talked about what drew her to making movies:
Throughout most of my acting career, I had zero interest in filmmaking. I always wanted to write, though, and felt an urgent need to express myself more literally than I could as an actor. About eight years ago, I decided on a whim to make a short film and discovered that I knew almost nothing about the process of actually putting a film together, and that I had never been so challenged or rewarded by anything in my life. I knew then that I never wanted to stop.
Another short and a TV gig followed, and then, in 2006, Polley struck gold when she adapted Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" into the feature film Away From Her. It won seven Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay; two Toronto Film Critics Association awards; the Writers Guild of Canada award for feature film; three Directors Guild of Canada awards, numerous international print and online accolades, and the Golden Globe for Julie Christie's lead performance.

Polley on the set of Stories We Tell
Polley followed up Away with two more domestic dramas: one fictional, Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams; the other non-fictional, the documentary Stories We Tell, about the history of her family. My posts about both of these films are elsewhere on this blog. Last summer, she announced her next project, writing and producing a Netflix mini-series adaptation of the Margaret Atwood crime novel Alias Grace. American Psycho's Mary Harron will direct.

Polley's loyalty to Canadian cinema is such that at the height of her fame as an actress, she turned down the role that went to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous to make a Canadian film instead. A quote from a 2008 interview with MovieMaker sums up her feelings on the matter:
I think there is more creative freedom for filmmakers [in Canada]. That affects me as an actor, too. When I sign on to a film, I'm signing on to a filmmaker's vision of the film, not the studio's vision or anybody else's. I just want to know that it's going to be the filmmaker's film that I'm making. Of course, as a filmmaker, I feel like, in Canada, it's a given that a first-time filmmaker always has final cut. Why would I choose to work anywhere else?
----------------------
Other films directed by Sarah Polley:
Take This Waltz
Stories We Tell

Previously:
John Candy
William Shatner

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Major and the Minor/Monkey Business (1952)

The Major and the Minor
TCM viewing

Monkey Business (1952)
YouTube viewing

I don't think I really began to appreciate Ginger Rogers until I started seeing her films independent of Fred Astaire. I knew she had made plenty of movies without him, but it's difficult to think of her as something besides one half of the greatest dance team in film history.

Truth is, she was a dynamite comedic actress who won an Oscar for drama (of course). I hadn't planned on watching two of her films so close to each other, but since I did, I figured I might as well talk about them. In both films, she gets to act like a child.

The Major and the Minor was the directing debut of Billy Wilder. Rogers is trying to take the train home from New York, only she doesn't have enough money. In a desperate ploy, she dresses up as a kid so she can pay a reduced fare. While on the train, she meets Ray Milland, a military officer, and falls for him. He, however, thinks she's only a kid.

I had always thought this premise was way too wacky and unbelievable for even the great Wilder. I was prepared to lower my expectations. This one holds up, though, silly as it is, because of Rogers. As an adult masquerading as a child, she doesn't try to oversell the role. The comedy comes from her interactions with Milland and others, including an actual teenage girl who sees right through her ruse, and an assortment of military academy cadets vying for Rogers' affections.


None of this should work, but Rogers' character combines world-weariness and desperation with charm and spunk. She makes the whole thing watchable. Wilder fans will recognize the Swiss watch-like nature of his screenplay, with Charles Brackett, in which jokes are set up and paid off further down the line and simple things are expressed in more sophisticated ways.


Monkey Business is a Howard Hawks flick, co-written by frequent Wilder collaborator IAL Diamond. This one's much sillier. Rogers is the wife of scientist Cary Grant, who's working on some manner of pep pill that he has been testing on lab monkeys. One of them sneaks out of his cage and fiddles around with the formula. The resulting mixture works too well: it makes people as spry and energetic as kids. Predictable hijinks ensue as a result.


Unlike Major, Rogers really cuts loose while acting child-like under the formula's influence. She was 41 when she made this; it's not the kind of role you'd expect for an older actress, but Rogers is more than game. Apparently, she insisted on having her character expanded in this way. She has great chemistry (so to speak) with Grant as well, although the scenes where they act like kids are pretty over the top.


One year before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire vaulted her into superstar status, Marilyn Monroe has a thankless role as a secretary who spends a day with Grant while he's under the formula's spell. She shows off her legs in one scene and we see her in a swimsuit in another.

The scene where the monkey mixes the formula was done in mostly one long take. I don't recall seeing a credit for "monkey trainer" or anything like that, but whoever worked with that monkey did a fine job with him. It reminded me a bit of the scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar discovers the chemical that makes apes smart for the first time. No, he wasn't a real monkey, but so what? Anyway, the one in Business was fun to watch.

Friday, January 27, 2017

20th Century Women

20th Century Women
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Looking back at the new releases for 2016 that I saw, one trend that sticks out is that of senior leading ladies in starring roles: Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky; Sally Field in Hello My Name is Doris, Susan Sarandon in The Meddler, and now Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. In fact, when I first saw the trailer for this one, my first reaction was omigod, Bening's old! I suppose it's always a bit of a shock to realize your favorite movie stars, or any celebrity you've seen in the public eye long enough, may still be glamorous, but are no longer young. I've talked about this feeling here before; I've even devoted a blogathon to great performances by actors 50 and over.

Regardless, Bening is terrific in this semi-autobiographical tale from Beginners director Mike Mills. She's the divorced mother of a teenage son in the 70s. She fears losing touch with him as he grows up, so she turns to the closest role models available for help: his teen gal pal and the 30ish woman boarding in their house. They both strive to teach him how to be a woman's idea of a man.

I had both my parents around for my childhood, but over the past decade-plus of my life, the vast majority of my friends have been women: many of my close comics friends; Vija and her circle; Bibi; Jen; Sandi; and of course, most of my blogger friends.



Sometimes I wonder whether or not that's coincidence. I don't think I consciously seek women companions over men. I certainly didn't when I started film blogging, for example, and yet they're the ones I've been drawn to most, especially older women, to bring it back to that theme. Granted, the overwhelming majority of bloggers I've encountered have been female - don't know why that is - but even if the reverse were true, I think, though I'm not certain, I might still gravitate towards them.



In that sense, I suppose that makes me similar to the character Jamie, learning from the women who just happen to be around him. I don't feel like less of a man because of it. Romantic failures aside, I feel like I've learned things from them that I wouldn't from other men, as they, hopefully, have learned from me. Of course, that doesn't mean I fully understand them, but what man truly does?



What I liked about Mills' screenplay is his concision. He knows when to sustain dialogue within a scene and when to provide the bare minimum necessary, which could be no more than one or two lines. I recently talked about brevity while critiquing someone in my writers group. It's a problem I'm encountering with my novel - giving too much detail when it's not necessary - so it's something with which I'm becoming aware.

Mills' compositions, his experimentation with film speeds, his use of vignette-like shots in character moments, and even his occasional use of text, all remind me of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like PTA, Mills is good with balancing an ensemble of actors, all of whom fill niches within the story. He's a bit less showy when it comes to the actors. I could not imagine him writing a character like Frank TJ Mackey from Magnolia, or Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but that's okay. Not everybody can.

Women was a pleasant surprise. I knew it'd be good, but I didn't expect to be drawn into it as deeply as I was.