Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Five movies with eclipses

So have you heard about this big-deal solar eclipse that's supposed to happen this month? Bibi first told me about it; she and Eric wanna travel to the west coast to see it because the view is better there, or so she says. I don't recall the last time I actually witnessed one - and yes, I know you're not supposed to look at it directly; you know what I mean - but I figure this is noteworthy enough to pay tribute to it here with a list of movie eclipses. There are more of them than you'd think.

- King Solomon's Mines. H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain novel about the search for the legendary African treasure has been brought to the big (and small) screen five times. The first, with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson, was in 1937. The eclipse happens during the outbreak of a rebellion led by Robeson, the rightful chieftain of his tribe, against the usurper who killed his dad. I'm sure it's a great scene if he's in it.

- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Mark Twain's sci-fi classic has seen numerous interpretations across multiple media. In 1949, Bing Crosby starred in a musical film version (also with Cedric Hardwicke). Here, the eclipse helps der Bingle get out of being burned at the stake. He knows it's going to happen, you see. He tells everyone he caused it, because they missed the Cosmos episode on how eclipses really happen, and he'll stop it if they let him go. Clever, huh? (Thanks to Paddy for assistance on this one.)

Little Shop of Horrors. Who'da thunk this list would have two musicals? Audrey II, the carnivorous, murderous sentient plant of this bizarre but highly entertaining adaptation of the stage musical (itself an adaptation of the Roger Corman flick), is born of an eclipse. How? Eh, that's not really important. It's an eclipse. They're funny like that.

- Dolores Claiborne. One of the best films based on the work of Stephen King is this Kathy Bates/Jennifer Jason Leigh thriller about a bitter New England woman accused of murder. Why does everyone think she did it? Because she killed her husband years ago during, you guessed it, an eclipse - or did she? You thought Kathy was great in Misery? Her performance here blows that one out of the water. How she wasn't Oscar nominated is a total mystery.

- Pitch Black. You ever have one of those days where you're stuck on a planet with three suns and the darkness from an eclipse releases deadly underground creatures ready to tear you limb from limb? I hate it when that happens... Anyway, this is the scenario of the Vin Diesel action flick, the first in the Riddick series, which also spawned an animated film and some video games.

The real eclipse happens this Monday. If you see it live, let me know how it went.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The seven-year Rich

Every year I keep saying this, but only because it's true: I can't believe I'm still here writing this blog! Seven years of slaving over a hot keyboard has taken me places I'd never been before, led me to people I never thought I'd meet, even if only in a virtual manner, and it's even been therapeutic at times. Balancing this blog and my novel hasn't been as difficult as you might expect; writing is my thing now, and I wanna keep writing. So I guess that means I'll keep this blog going. Thanks as always for reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Cinemax viewing

Jerry was my best friend throughout junior high school. My memory of him is as a happy-go-lucky dude who liked to joke around a lot. I wish I could remember when and how we met; it was probably in either fifth or sixth grade. I just know we bonded pretty quickly on a lot of things - especially baseball.

In Flushing there's a Modell's Sporting Goods on Main Street. It's one of the last remnants of my childhood still standing in the neighborhood - and I've lost plenty. Downstairs, there used to be a giant bin filled with baseball gloves. Whenever Jerry and I went in there, we'd scour the bin, looking for gloves with the autographs of players we liked. As a left-hander, I always had a harder search than he did, because lefty gloves were few and far between - plus, it had to be a glove with a comfortable fit. I was very picky about that sort of thing. 

We'd go to Flushing Meadow to play catch, sometimes with his younger brothers. We had few opportunities to play an actual game outside of school - there were never enough of us to form a team - but we made do. Any dreams we had of playing for the Mets one day were only that. We weren't athletes; our interests ultimately lay elsewhere. It was okay.

Jerry was also Dominican, like the protagonist of Sugar. When Jerry was twelve or thirteen, I think, his family moved down there for a short time. I still have the letters he sent me. Sometimes Dominicans get hassled by other Latinos for whatever reason. That always annoys me because it's like they're insulting Jerry. I haven't known any other Dominicans since him - at least, none that made half the impression he did...

...and certainly no aspiring ballplayers. Sugar reminded me of the films of John Sayles: immersive in foreign cultures in a low-key, unobtrusive manner. Co-writers/co-directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck present Sugar's struggle to reach the big leagues simply, from a distinctly Latino perspective. This isn't The Natural or even Bull Durham; for all of Sugar's ability to throw a fastball, one always feels he's facing very long odds and a trip to The Show is anything but certain.

Do I wish I had tried to become an athlete? Eh, not really. I might wonder about it once in a blue moon, but I tend to think the chance of long-term injury doesn't make a few fleeting moments of glory worth the struggle - not that I thought that way as a kid, and neither did Jerry. Dreams don't work that way. Sugar is about one young man's pursuit of his dream. I can relate to it because while he doesn't end up a star pitcher, not everyone can be. He still finds a way to do what he loves, though, and that may be more important than glory in the end. I think Jerry would agree.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Books: Desilu

The 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I was always more of a Honeymooners fan when I was younger, but I remember watching enough of I Love Lucy to appreciate it as one of the all-time great television sitcoms. Lucille Ball's transformation from B-movie starlet to television icon to studio mogul is one of the greatest of Hollywood success stories. Her love for husband, co-star and business partner Desi Arnaz lasted even beyond their eventual divorce, right up to their deaths.

Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders & Tom Gilbert chronicles their life together in front of and behind the cameras. Desilu, of course, was the name of the studio they founded, the place where they filmed I Love Lucy, and its hour-long spin-off, The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, and created or produced some of the finest shows of TV's Golden Age. The book details its genesis, its rise and fall.

Lucy & Desi had a fiery relationship. For all the love they shared, their fights were equally epic. Desi had a reputation for drinking, gambling and womanizing, but as their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, explains in an early passage, it was his wild ways that drew Lucy to him in the first place:

... There's something in the kind of man you choose, the strength of the kind of man you choose. She knew what she was doing when she chose my father. She knew that he was a man who loved women, a 'Latin lover.' She always went after people like that, and kind of liked the challenge. It made her feel really womanly to love a guy who is clearly the 'loverboy,' and 'loverboy' falls in love with you, the clown. How fabulous that would make you feel.

Desi gets his due in the book as not just the perfect straight man for Lucy, but as an exceptional businessman and evaluator of ideas, one who built Desilu up into a formidable entity despite no prior experience as a Hollywood executive. Even after their divorce, Lucy sought his advice on day-to-day studio operations from time to time, including for series development.

We see Lucy not just as a gifted comic actress, but as a controlling, often dictatorial presence on the set, particularly on her subsequent series The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, both made without Desi. She had very specific views on what she felt her audience wanted and expected from her, she used excessive measures to get them, on herself and others, and she refused to change with the times, even when she became less able physically to perform the same kind of slapstick she used to do in her prime.

That said, we also see examples of her remarkable generosity and sense of loyalty, her ability to make the cast and crew of each of her shows feel at home, like family. For all of the complaints of her intransigent ways, there are more hosannas in her honor. Plus, we see Lucy & Desi's children, Lucie and Desi Jr., their respective careers as well as their problems.

Among the many people interviewed include the late Robert Osborne. Long before he became the host of Turner Classic Movies, he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, but more importantly, he was an actor and a confidante of Lucy's way back in the 50s. Osborne was part of a group of Desilu contract players, organized and supervised by Lucy (including, Star Trek fans, a young Majel Barrett). I was pleasantly surprised to see what he looked like as a young man.

My only real criticism is that I would've liked a little more about some of the better known I Love Lucy episodes. Sanders & Gilbert touch on a handful here and there, but not the all-timers, the ones everyone knows: Vitameatavegamin, stomping the grapes, the chocolates on the conveyor belt, etc. I didn't expect an episode guide, but these were the moments that helped build the legend. Otherwise, I liked Desilu. Seeing the specifics of Lucy & Desi's relationship, the tension as well as the passion, was quite moving, especially towards the end. Theirs was a rare and unique love.


The girl from Stage 12
The Long Long Trailer
Forever Darling


Tracy and Hepburn

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jolly Good Fun: England's 'Carry On' films

The British Invaders Blogathon is an event dedicated to films made and/or produced in Great Britain, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Somewhere in-between the absurd verbosity of Monty Python and the bawdy sexual hijinks of Benny Hill lie the "Carry On" films, a film franchise almost sixty years old, mostly unknown in America but adored in its native Great Britain. 31 films and counting, from 1958-92 (plus assorted television and theatrical spin-offs), they were all produced and directed by the team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, respectively, made at Pinewood Studios, the birthplace of the cinematic James Bond, workplace for such legendary British directors as Laurence Olivier, David Lean and Powell & Pressberger, and launching pad for film franchises such as Superman, Alien, Star Wars and The Hobbit.

Carry On Sergeant
It all began in 1958 with the low-budget (£70,000) army comedy Carry On Sergeant, based on a play and adapted by Norman Hudis, who would go on to write five more films in the Carry On series. Think Bill Murray's Stripes with a British flavor (or should I say, flavour). The title was a spin on an earlier film called Carry On Admiral. Sergeant went on to become the third-highest British moneymaker for 1958. Here's more about the film from a fan.

With the advent of the Swinging Sixties, the movies started to reflect the changing mores and took on a naughtier bent, reveling in innuendo, double entendres, and of course, pretty girls showing lots of skin. The movies depicted either aspects of contemporary British life, or were period pieces of some sort, usually from a blue-collar point of view.

Carry On Dick
In time, Rogers and Thomas used certain actors again and again, and a Carry On repertory of sorts was formed, featuring players such as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacques, Terry Scott, Bernard Bresslaw, Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Jim Dale. Many of them appear in the 1998 documentary What's a Carry On?

I watched three Carry On movies for this post: Carry On Camping, Carry On Abroad and Carry On Columbus. Of these three, I think I liked Abroad best: a bunch of vacationers go to this foreign country but are forced to stay in an unfinished hotel. While the staff goes nuts trying to keep the place in one piece, the residents get to know each other and start bed-hopping.

Naturally, the sex stuff is tame by today's standards, but it's still amusing to see these broadly-drawn characters interact. I remember watching The Love Boat as a kid and having a general sense of what the adults on the show were up to, though of course you could only do so much on television. I think if some of the restraints had been lifted, the result might resemble Abroad. In either case, the humor relies on the chemistry of the actors and their willingness to be bawdy in the name of comedy.

Carry On Loving
Camping was in a similar vein, only set at a camping park for RVs. I thought that one had some gentler character moments as well. Columbus was a spoof of Christopher Columbus, not unlike a Mel Brooks movie. I liked how the Indians saw Columbus and his men as rubes and tried to con them. Overall, I thought the films were okay; a pleasant way to spend time, but nothing particularly exciting, either. I didn't connect with them the way I would with, say, a Kevin Smith movie.

Last year, it was announced that the franchise was being revived, with fresh writers but without any of the familiar faces from the previous incarnation that are still alive. Whether they'll succeed as well in a more politically-correct 21st-century environment remains to be seen, but they have a chance to attract a wider international audience as well, especially depending on casting. It might be worth keeping an eye on.

Other British-produced films (an abbreviated list):
Brief Encounter
Attack the Block
The 39 Steps
The Gorgon

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The link tower

Been feeling a little blue recently. Jen had to leave my writing group, for personal reasons. She was easily the best friend I had made in two and a half years with the group. Going home, we'd ride the train together. That's how I learned she was a classic film fan. I've met her husband, I've gone to her parties, she came to my bookstore reading. I've even confided in her, on several occasions. I'm gonna miss her.

She and I were the group's moderators, along with this other girl named Claire (who is also terrific). All this year we've lost people who were regulars for months, even years. The group has been smaller, on average, as a result, so Claire and I decided we don't need to name a new moderator at the moment. Still, I kinda feel some added pressure. I did not expect to run the group for as long as I have; it was one of those situations where I took the job because someone had to do it, and I've done it to the best of my ability. 

Now that I'm closer to the end of the first draft of my novel, though, I'm thinking maybe I should switch to a smaller group of beta readers from that point on. I don't wanna run the group indefinitely, and with Jen officially gone, some of my motivation to do so went with her. I'll stick around for now, but I may be next out the door before too long.

The weather on the Fourth wasn't the greatest, so Sandi and me had dinner at this parkside restaurant near the East River and watched the fireworks from her place again. She actually has a great view of them. She kept oohing and aahing excitedly at every little display, as if she had never seen fireworks before. It was the most worked up I had ever seen any adult get over them in perhaps, ever! It was cute.

So chances are you might have heard about this new thing going around called the Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. From what I understand, it's kinda like my monthly link posts, only people get to host a "link party" on their blogs or some such. I'm not entirely sure I grok it all, but Paddy let me in on it, I submitted a post and it got accepted, so thanks to all involved. Nice to be on the receiving end for a change.

Your links:

Debbie reexamines the Disney/Lucas deal, five years later.

Paddy swoons for Errol Flynn as Don Juan.

The death of horror director George Romero prompts Jennifer to reflect on the summer she became a film fan.

I disagree with her assessment of War for the Planet of the Apes, but Jacqueline's story about going to the drive-in is still worth a look.

And then there was the time they encoded a movie onto living DNA.

Ava DuVernay's next film will be an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time - for an important reason.

What does Christopher Nolan have against Netflix?

What was Romero's favorite film? (It's not what you think.)

Remember when Planet of the Apes was on TV?

Joan Crawford wrote a style book called My Way of Life.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary [sic]
IFC viewing

I didn't really think Pet Sematary was gonna be that good a movie, but I had hoped it might be, solely on the basis of its awesome theme song. I was mistaken; it sucks, although it does have its unintentionally funny moments, including an epic Big No scene.

I'll have more to say about Stephen King next month when I write about The Dark Tower; for now, I'll say this: I respect him as a storyteller, someone who has been doing for decades what I'm still struggling to do once - write a novel - and making it look easy, but this just wasn't that scary. I doubt it was that scary in 1989, when it was released - and he wrote the screenplay.

Plus, it kinda rips off The Shining: family moves to someplace new because Dad's got a new job; child has precognitive visions of impending doom; older character acts as mentor figure to child, eventually gets killed; wife is useless; supernatural/imaginary being seen by only one character; crazy father stalks son/crazy son stalks father. I suppose when you've been writing for as long as King has, you're bound to repeat certain themes, but still.

Let's talk about Denise Crosby. As you know, she left Star Trek: The Next Generation after one season to pursue better roles. Her character was killed off. In a 2012 interview, she makes it clear she was "miserable" on the show:
...[Leaving] was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many episodes, but I didn't want to spend the next six years going "Aye aye, captain," and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years.
I believe Crosby would have had opportunities to do more on the show had she opted to stick it out, but that's with the benefit of hindsight. By many accounts, the first season of TNG was difficult on multiple levels. Few could have guessed where it would lead. Crosby came back to TNG, of course, in spectacular fashion: dying a second time and reappearing in a recurring role as her own, half-Romulan daughter! (You can do that sort of thing in sci-fi.)

I'm afraid I haven't seen her in much non-Trek material. I saw her in Deep Impact; she was good in that. She's mostly stuck to television over the years; perhaps you've seen her recently in Mad Men, Scandal, The Walking Dead and Ray Donovan, among others. To be honest, I wouldn't rank her among the greatest actresses I've ever seen, but credit where credit's due: she has sustained a career doing way more than genre work.

Crosby doesn't have much to do in Pet Sematary other than be the wife. She gets one big scene where her character talks about her childhood with her disabled sister. It sounded like two different takes were put together, one in which she's crying and another where she's somewhat calmer. The difference is just enough to be noticeable. It kinda threw me out of the scene. One wonders what the story behind that was. Perhaps it's explained in the new making-of documentary!