Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The secret life of links

First off, I wanna say the blog has experienced an upsurge in readership dating back to last winter. The page count total for May was the highest in almost four years. That's pretty amazing, and it's because of you, so thanks so much for sticking with me. I really appreciate the support.

I did not realize Anton Yelchin was actually Russian. I suppose the name should've been a tip off, but I never gave it much thought. His Chekov was a sharp departure from Walt Koenig: a little younger, a little more manic, much more of a prodigy. What I will remember most is him running down the Enterprise hallways like a madman, trying to figure out how to rescue Kirk. He did a decent job of stepping into the boots of an iconic science fiction character. I'm grateful for his contribution. This Variety piece summarizes his pre-Trek career.

Here's something you'll get a kick out of: last week I returned to Brooklyn's Videology, the video rental store turned bar and screening room (and, amazingly, is still a video store as well) for a movie trivia night! I was there at the invite of Jen from my writer's group, who is a big fan of pub trivia nights and party games in general. She was there with her friend Laura, whom I had met before. For a Tuesday night, the place was packed - but then, the impression I got was that this regular event was quite popular. We shared a table with three other people and we partnered with them for the duration of the contest.

There were several rounds of varying degrees of difficulty. In addition to answering questions, we had to also identify stills, audio clips and video clips. You couldn't be a lightweight, either - the questions the hosts provided really did test your movie knowledge. I think Jen and I would've preferred more classic movie-related questions than we got (though there was one about Judy Holliday which I'm proud to say I knew instantly), but our newfound teammates pulled their weight and then some. They knew their stuff too.

Regrettably, it was not enough in the end. Our team floated in the top five at one point before fading out of contention in the later rounds. I think we finished tenth out of somewhere between 15-20 teams (I told you the place was packed). It was fun, though. Too bad the grand prize was only free drinks!

Your links:

Jennifer examines the history of Buffalo Bill in film.

Kristina is in a French New Wave mood.

Le says Harold Lloyd was cinema's first nerd.

Did you know Y-nk-- hall of famer Lou Gehrig appeared in a Western? Paddy knew.

Retrospace looks at two B-movies about space princesses on Earth (NSFW).

Paramount releases their guidelines for Star Trek fan films. I'll talk more about this next month.

Yes, one day, even schlock cinema will be preserved.

A bit of local news: Kaufman Astoria Studios is expanding.

Enjoy the holiday weekend, everyone. I'll be back July 7.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Books: The Thin Man

The 2016 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 picked up Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man in a used bookstore on an impulse. It wasn't like I had any great desire to read it. For a brief period years ago, I had an interest in classic crime fiction, but it didn't last long. The thought of this blogathon did cross my mind, but mostly I was curious about the book. I had written about Hammett last winter in relation to Lillian Hellman... and, of course, I've seen the movie.

Dashiell Hammett
The first thing I noticed was that the ridiculous amount of drinking William Powell and Myrna Loy do in the film is no exaggeration. Nick and Nora really do drink that much in the book! It's almost comical how often Hammett writes them drinking, mixing a drink, receiving a drink, recovering from a drink, wanting a drink... Seriously, I almost thought this was meant to be read as a parody!

The next thing I noticed was how heavy the book is on dialogue. Hammett gets away with a bare minimum of narrative description of people and places. If he were a member of my writers group, I'd probably call him on that, but it didn't bother me that much. Nick Charles as written in the book strikes me as a man not easily perturbed by the things going on around him. Nora is as I imagined her from the movies - the sensible gal Friday with the droll humor.

The story, however, didn't grab me. As much as I tried to imagine Powell and Loy acting their way through this complex murder mystery with a large cast, I didn't care much for what was going on. I didn't see why the murder mattered, and while everyone's motives were laid out in the open all nice and neat, it still didn't make them that appealing as characters. The same might be true of the movie, but at least you had Powell and Loy to make it all watchable. I think I'll stick to Dennis Lehane from now on.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bread and Circuses: action Trek vs. mental Trek

“You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is “Does the Federation mean anything?” And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?
With the new movie coming next month, and a new TV series further down the pike, it seems like a good time to talk about what, exactly, should we expect from Star Trek in the future. The issue that Chris Pine brings up is a dichotomy that the franchise has had to contend with from Day One, fifty years ago.

When Gene Roddenberry wrote the first Trek pilot, "The Cage," it was in the spirit of traditional science fiction: a story with Big Ideas that says something about who we are and who we aspire to be, but the world wasn't ready for it yet. At least, NBC wasn't. Though they liked the premise, they considered the execution too cerebral, too progressive. They were willing to give Roddenberry another chance, though, and it was good for us that they did. The result was an unprecedented second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which retained the same basic premise but had a greater emphasis on action. Star Trek was sold as a series, and the rest is history.

Even the first two movies followed this pattern. The Motion Picture was a thoughtful, character-driven piece that got a lukewarm reception, but The Wrath of Khan was a plot-driven adventure with ships fighting in space and a villain to struggle against, that became a modern classic.

The Voyage Home emphasized the familiar characters and their
relationships in a movie with a message...
When Pine says "a cerebral Star Trek... wouldn't work in today's marketplace," I believe he's talking about the movies and not television, so let's go in that direction, because what's behind that statement lies a fundamental question: what do we expect from our movies?

Dramatic, intelligent films like Spotlight may win Oscars, but it's the Jurassic World-type movies that dominate the box office. This is not news. Once upon a time, the disparity was not so pronounced, but the market, as Pine acknowledged, has changed. Intelligent movies, however, will still get made, because there will always be an audience hungry for such material - and yes, it is entirely possible to enjoy both kinds of movies. No one's disputing that. One likes to think if the Spotlights of the world had wider distribution and better marketing, they would each make $100 million also - quality should be all that matters in the end - but it's no longer that simple, if indeed it ever was.

As for Trek specifically, it's a bit different. A movie like The Voyage Home, a character-driven message piece with no villains, was a huge money maker, but as time goes by, it has come to look more and more like an outlier. All of the other Trek films following Khan have assumed the action-with-a-villain model, to varying degrees of success. Therefore, in a sense, what Pine says is nothing new. Despite the popularity of Voyage, Paramount has shown no interest in capitalizing on its storytelling model.

And yet, in recent years, cinematic sci-fi has taken a turn towards more Big Idea-type material, from Interstellar and The Martian and Inception to Ex Machina and Her and District 9. If movies like these can capture the hearts and minds of critics and audiences, shouldn't a Trek movie done in this fashion do well also?

...but most Trek movies, such as First Contact, tend to lean
more towards the action end of the spectrum.
I say it can. Trek, more than any other multimedia franchise, has had a profound impact on not just our culture, but the way we've shaped our technology, the way we view scientific achievement and politics and religion and a host of other things. Trek has always striven to make us think as well as to entertain us, and if any franchise can make a "cerebral" film work, it's this one. I would go so far as to say it might even be their responsibility to make one eventually, though that might require a bigger shift in the zeitgeist.

Whether or not it'll actually happen, though, is a question only the powers that be at Paramount can answer. I'll say this much: studios are risk-averse. If Paramount was to make a "cerebral" Trek movie, they would need a good reason to do so, one that would mean money in the bank for them.

The influence of a powerful director could be one reason. Say what you will about JJ Abrams, but he was brought on board because he had a proven track record as a genre writer-director, and it was believed he could turn the fortunes of a franchise in a downward spiral around. He did - but he doesn't make heady genre films. Not many do, at least not those that a studio would see as a proven money maker.

If Trekkies want innovation and Big Ideas, I suspect we'll have to look to the forthcoming series instead. Trek is rooted in television, after all, and most of its best moments have come through the shows. Perhaps that's as it should be.

Axanar and fan fiction
William Shatner's 'Leonard'
Two Nimoy docs
Lin brokers Axanar settlement

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Finding Nemo/Finding Dory

Finding Nemo
seen @ Fort Greene Park, Fort Greene, Brooklyn NY

Finding Dory
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, Queens

It had been a long time since I had last seen Finding Nemo, and with the sequel, Finding Dory, due soon, I figured it was a good time to revisit this film. The Alamo Drafthouse sponsored the outdoor screening of the former at Fort Greene Park, which made sense, since the theater chain is opening a new location a short distance away in the downtown Brooklyn area.

I've written about Fort Greene before, but not about its park. It's largish; its most distinctive feature being the great column at the top, the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument, a Revolutionary War memorial standing 149 feet high. The park is basically one big hill, and it is steep! Scaling the paths leading upward to the top sometimes reminds me of the summer camp I worked at where once, our bunk was atop a similarly steep hill which we had to traverse every day. I suppose the view from high above is worth the effort, but most of the time I don't need to enjoy the view that much. Otherwise, it's a very nice park.

Friday, June 17, 2016


TCM viewing

One of the great highlights from last year's extended foray into classic Hollywood for me was my conversation with Jacqueline about her Ann Blyth biography. It has gotten good reviews, and it must be selling decently for a self-published indie because Jacqueline's expanding into the realm of audio books. Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star will soon be available in this format, complete with a legitimate Hollywood actress to do the reading!

Outside of her star-making turn in Mildred Pierce, I doubt if Blyth would be an actress I'd be aware of if not for Jacqueline, but then, this is hardly unprecedented. I've written before about how she got me interested in another little-known Golden Age actress, Alexis Smith, and that was just one blog post. Blyth required a whole year devoted to her! So I figured I should take the time to check out some of her other films.

I had started watching Kismet once before and was unable to finish, but this is one that TCM plays a lot, so I knew it was only a matter of time before they played it again. It's a musical, directed by Vincente Minnelli, set in old Baghdad. Howard Keel stars as a petty beggar and con man who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and is drawn into some palace intrigue in the court of the caliph. Blyth plays his daughter, who falls for a dude who is not what he seems.

The whole thing is as fluffy as you can imagine, and to be honest, I started losing interest halfway through, but the exquisite costumes and set design make for terrific eye candy, especially in CinemaScope, and some of the songs are decent. Keel had a powerful baritone voice and he gets many opportunities to show it off. Also, pre-MASH Jamie Farr in a bit part.

One of the things about Blyth's career I found interesting was how she was able to avoid being typecast as the bad girl, only to have the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. Jacqueline told me that the studio publicized her as a good girl to the point where it was difficult to imagine her in any other kind of role:
...she was praised for her work as Veda Pierce [in Mildred] at the age [of] sixteen when nobody knew anything about her. A decade later, she was mocked for wanting to play the alcoholic [singer] Helen Morgan (despite the fact of Morgan's being demure, soft-spoken, charitable, and a Catholic convert).... Even when she won the Helen Morgan role, she wasn't allowed to sing in the movie because by that time, she had done a few lightweight operetta-type musicals and the press smirked at the thought of her being a torch singer with that type of trained voice. The studio caved.
I can see how someone could make that mistake. Blyth's voice was in the tradition of cinematic sirens like Jeanette MacDonald, very well suited for Broadway or for an old-fashioned, European-style movie musical. It's great, but if I were a producer, I doubt she'd have been my first choice for Helen Morgan either.

Kismet is really more of a vehicle for Keel. Blyth's role isn't as big as I expected, but she gets her moments. In her post on the movie, Jacqueline does a nice analysis of the scene where Blyth performs "Stranger in Paradise" with Vic Damone, noting the color scheme and the staging. I was pleasantly surprised to realize I recognized the song; apparently it has become a standard. Jacqueline says "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" is a famous number also. I liked that one too.

Kismet isn't among the greatest musicals I've ever seen, but for what it was, it was a pleasant enough way to spend two hours. I can see why Blyth was a star. It couldn't have been easy to overcome the shadow of her great performance in Mildred, especially as a teenager, but she did it.

If I had to compare Blyth to a modern actress, I might go with Anne Hathaway: former teen starlet; breakthrough role in a dramatic film (Brokeback Mountain); alternates between heavy drama and light comedy; finally given a chance to sing and she shines (Les Miserables), although unlike Blyth, Hathaway hasn't had a lot of singing roles since. Then again, movie musicals these days are not as popular as they used to be.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Breathless/The Red Balloon

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle)
The Red Balloon
seen @ Flicks on the Green, Central Park, New York NY

Okay, I understand that Jean-Luc Godard is an Important Filmmaker and Breathless is an Important Film. I spent a week writing about the French New Wave several years ago; I know the kind of filmmaking JLG and his peers made was unlike anything that came before, and I recognize that in this movie.

I dug the location shots on the streets of Paris. Combined with the hand-held cinematography, it made the whole thing look very modern. I didn't expect the jump cuts to be used as rapidly as they were in places, but that, too, was clearly a dramatic departure from the way films had been made before, and I can appreciate that. I would not dream of denying JLG his place as a radical director who helped kick-start a cinematic revolution. All that said...

...I hated this movie! First of all, it didn't help that I watched most of Breathless while needing to pee. The clearing in Central Park where the movie was shown somehow neglected to include port-o-potties in its set-up, so I had to hold it in for maybe three-fourths of the movie until I said the hell with it and packed up my blanket and left, so I could find a tree to pee behind. And did I mention how cold it was? I wasn't watching under the best of circumstances...

...but I would've put up with it if I had liked the movie more. Jean-Paul Belmondo's character is an ugly man who thinks he's God's gift to women, when in fact all he does is sponge off of them and use them for sex - and they LET him! This actually made me angry; that chicks, including those in the audience, would find a guy like this "witty" and "charismatic," when in real life he'd be called on his bullshit before he made it to first base. Actually, if the chicks in the audience did think he was funny, maybe his schtick really would work, but any girl who falls for a dude like that is no girl I would want.

Which brings me to Jean Seberg. There's this one long and dull scene in her bedroom with her and Belmondo that stops the film dead in its tracks. All they do is talk about useless crap, and she's constantly beating his grabby hands off her. What does a foxy chick like her see in a shallow, horny Lothario like him? For the life of me, I could not figure it out and after awhile I stopped trying. I fiddled around on my cellphone (which I wouldn't have done if this wasn't an outdoor movie) until the scene mercifully ended. The rest of what I saw before I walked out didn't do much for me either.

The night wasn't a total loss, however. I also got to see a short film I hadn't seen in ages, The Red Balloon. It played in front of Breathless, and boy, was I happy about that. I feel fairly confident in saying this may be the first foreign film I ever saw, and the memory is still strong. I was in grade school, maybe third grade, and we were on a class outing to our local library. We were shown around the place and told how it worked, and then the librarian showed us the movie - which must have been on 8 or 16mm or something like that. Home video was still several years away.

It's an almost-silent short about a kid and a balloon with what appears to be a mind of its own. Looking at it now, it reminds me somewhat of Little Fugitive in that we're following an unsupervised child all over city streets and he doesn't appear to be in grave danger. The streets and alleys of Paris are well put on display in lush Technicolor.

Balloon is one of those kind of tales where the magic of something like a sentient balloon is taken for granted, but that's part of its charm. I know it appealed to me as a kid, and I'm glad to know it still does over thirty years later.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll High School

Rock 'n' Roll High School
YouTube viewing

I still remember the first time I heard the Ramones. I was a freshman in high school and my friend Eric played one of their songs for me. I don't recall whether I listened to it on his Walkman (or mine) or if I heard it at his place - might have been the latter - but the song was "Do You Wanna Dance?" I loved it instantly. I had never heard the original version before, but it wouldn't have mattered. Even when I hear their version now, it always makes me happy.

I have a vague memory of seeing Rock 'n' Roll High School on TV, specifically, WPIX Channel 11, back when they still played movies. I remember watching the concert scene, seeing them perform "Teenage Lobotomy," and thinking how convenient it was for the film to provide the lyrics for the song in subtitles. I was too young to know what a lobotomy was, or DDT for that matter, but I still sensed the song was kinda silly, and I dug that.

Seeing them in this deliriously fun movie now, I was reminded for a brief moment that all four original band members - Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy - are playing in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven now (though Marky was in the band when they made this movie, not Tommy) - but only for a moment.

The punk rock "look" is fairly commonplace now (don't get me started on how out of control ripped jeans have become), but seeing the Ramones that way, during their prime, one is reminded of how counterculture that look used to be once upon a time. I mean, between Joey's bangs and his dark glasses and his long hair, one wonders if he even had a face at times. It's like his head was a great big mop of hair with a nose sticking out!

Rock 'n' Roll High School is very much in the spirit of those movies from the late 50s and 60s that exploded in the wake of the mainstreaming of rock, usually with some popular band of the moment, a hepcat Allan Freed-style DJ, stone-faced authority figures, and lots and lots of teens.

Born of rhythm & blues music by black musicians, rock metamorphosed into something bigger once White America grabbed hold of it, and Hollywood was there to take advantage of the new trend: Rock Around the Clock, The Girl Can't Help It, High School Confidential, through the British invasion and A Hard Day's Night and its imitators.

Rock 'n' Roll High School shares with these movies an anarchic, gleeful, fun-loving spirit that embodies rock at its core. In a year in which we've lost two of its greatest practitioners, it's worth looking back to the time when rock meant something special, something important, because all you have to do is turn on the radio these days to realize that time is gone, and may not ever return. And that's sad.

PJ Soles and Dey Young are both total hotties, but I wanna talk briefly about two other cast members I love: Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. I first discovered this husband and wife duo during my video store years, and seeing the two of them in anything was always a treat. His on-screen persona was like a slightly edgier Edward Everett Horton: fussy and uptight but susceptible to temptation. As for her, well, put it this way: I'm not into S&M or anything like that, but if I were, she's the one I'd want wielding the whip! The two of them together made for a potent mixture of virtue and vice.

So if you're in the New York area, you may have heard about the current exhibit at the Queens Museum devoted to the Ramones. It's glorious. It makes a fella proud to see how four local boys from Forest Hills conquered the world. The exhibit spans almost their entire lives, from candid pictures from their youth to lyrics scribbled on scraps of paper to flyers for their earliest gigs, amps and guitars and leather jackets, original album artwork, gigantic concert posters, photos from around the world, and more, all set to Ramones music constantly playing as you look. I can't recommend this enough. If the Ramones or rock in general mean anything to you, then take the trip on the 7 train and see this show while you can.