Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Television: Star Trek: Picard

One thing I wasn’t prepared for regarding the latest Star Trek series was the hype. Discovery was an unknown property, with new characters in what was a kinda-sorta familiar Trek setting, but it wasn’t your parents’ Trek! It represented a new look and a more modern direction for the franchise, and while CBS gave it the hard sell, Fandom Assembled received it with a great deal of trepidation.

Picard has been different, and not just because it’s the return of a familiar and beloved character—its reach has gone lightyears beyond the fandom, and much of that is because of Patrick Stewart. In the eighteen years since the last TNG film, Nemesis, he’s become a huge celebrity, but it’s the kind where his real-world persona has become as important, if not more than, his roles: his presence on social media, his charitable work, his talk show appearances, his friendship with Ian McKellen, his knighthood. Virginia, who is not what you’d call a Trekkie, was giggling over that country music video of Stewart’s to the point where she actually bought the CD.

That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean. On the one hand, stage work aside, Stewart is ensconced as a genre actor now; he doesn’t make as many non-SF/F movies as he used to (Conspiracy Theory, LA Story, Jeffrey, etc.), but because his reach has extended deep into the mainstream, he has transcended Trek and genre in general in a way only William Shatner, and arguably George Takei as well, has done.

The difference, I think, between Stewart’s fame and Shatner’s is the former appears more selective in the projects with which he involves himself. No one will remember Shatner for things like $#*! My Dad Says or War Chronicles, but I think Shatner’s motivated very differently. Between the acting, the writing, the spoken-word CDs, the commercials, and more, he seems determined to do it all. Stewart doesn’t strike me that way.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

So. Pedro Almodovar. Can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan. I don’t hate his movies, but I’ve never been particularly moved to rush right out to the local art house theater every time one of them comes out, either. During my video store days I watched Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up Tie Me Down and was entertained by them. Maybe he was too European for me to grok—or maybe I needed more life experience. I dunno. I’d rather stick with Woody Allen.

As I recall, Vija and Andrea saw Pain and Glory when it first came out last fall. I had passed without even learning what the new film was about. I think they liked it. Then it got Oscar nominated twice, including Antonio Banderas for Best Actor, and it was re-released—and Virginia and Ann wanted to see it. Well, at least this time I had a little more incentive.

Banderas is a hypochondriac filmmaker in the late stages of his life. Unexpected reunions with people from his past alternate with memories of his childhood, involving his mother and other individuals. Less a plot than a loose connection of character vignettes, it works mostly because of Banderas. I’ll come back to him in a minute.

I can’t say for certain what distinguishes Almodovar as a filmmaker, but as I watched Glory I wondered how much of this story is autobiographical: Banderas’ character is internationally known, has never been to Hollywood, and has similar hair to Almodovar. The director says there’s only a passing resemblance, and I have no reason to doubt him; still, I was drawn to Salvador’s story as much as the way it was told: gently, compassionately, unhurriedly.

The layers of his life—his childhood; his relationship with his mother; his career and his estrangement from his star; his business partner; his former lover—are peeled back a little at a time and presented, warts and all. Aside from one early CGI-animated sequence describing Salvador’s numerous ailments, there’s nothing flashy here...

...just Banderas embodying a complicated person with vulnerability, dignity and pain. When he crossed over into Hollywood, they tried making him an action hero, and I dug him in movies like Desperado and The Mask of Zorro, but Glory reminded me of his more dramatic turns in films like Philadelphia and Evita. I think drama is a better fit for him. Glory is his seventh film with Almodovar, and after all these years, it would seem he handles Banderas better than anyone else.

A few words about Penelope Cruz, who plays Banderas’ mom in flashbacks: like Banderas, Cruz also broke through in Hollywood. You may have seen her in Vanilla Sky, the American version of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, in which she also starred. Recently she was in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express.

I liked her in Glory; she had a Sophia Loren kind of vibe as a woman of the country, raising young Salvador in a domicile fashioned out of a cave—yes, a cave; that’s how she refers to it. In the opening scene, we see her washing clothes with other women by a river, singing songs. Her character is an important part of the story; later on, we see her, still in flashbacks, as an old woman (played by Julieta Serrano) and Banderas gets to interact with her in some very fine scenes.

The acting all around is quite good. In judging acting ability with foreign language actors, I find I respond more to things like physical presence and being in the moment than I normally might with English-language actors. Since I constantly have to have one eye on the subtitles, it helps to be able to read body language and tone of voice, something I suspect we take for granted when we can automatically understand the language being spoken. Anyway, good movie.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

He was Spartacus

The THR obit. He was 103, if you can believe that. One of the last of the old Hollywood legends.

Films with Kirk Douglas:
A Letter to Three Wives
Lust for Life

Five precedents for the proposed changes to the Hollywood Walk of Fame

...Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell unveiled a 90-page concept Thursday [January 30] aimed at creating a less gritty, more welcoming atmosphere for the millions of tourists who visit the Walk of Fame each year. 
The initial proposal draws inspiration from world-class streets across the world, including the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. That could be achieved in Hollywood, too, the plan says, with wider sidewalks, more shade trees, more space for sidewalk dining — and far less space for drivers.
I haven’t been to Los Angeles. I hope to go one day; the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the must-see attractions of the city, a glittering tribute to the men and women who shaped the American film industry. Because I’ve never been there, though, it never occurred to me that for all its glamour and prestige, it’s still part of a street, like any other in LA—two of them, in this case: Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. And like many big city streets in America, it has been engineered with driving private vehicles in mind over everything else.

This proposal to traffic-calm the WOF area and make it more pedestrian-friendly reminds me more than a little of when Times Square underwent a similar change, over a decade ago. It was considered radical at the time, but the end result slowed vehicle traffic and made walking and biking through the area safer and more pleasant, which was a boon to the local businesses. It didn’t take much, either—just paint and some extra chairs.

I believe the same is possible for the WOF area, but there will likely be those who object, who believe it’ll have an adverse effect on traffic and will drive away business. There always are. So let’s look at what Councilman O’Farrell’s plan entails and see how it works in other cities.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Links of prey

I don’t have a whole lot to say this month for once—except, of course, to remind you the Butlers & Maids Blogathon is later this month and there’s still time to join Paddy and me for it if you want. Leave a comment here or tweet me at @ratzo318 and you’ll be set.

Let’s get straight to this month’s links:

Ivan on the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows.

Virginie visits an Audrey Hepburn exhibit in Amsterdam.

Aurora collects a bagful of Cary Grant appearances on the radio.

Ruth tells of how Edgar Rice Burroughs called out Hollywood in a novel.

Hollywood’s Walk of Fame may become more pedestrian-friendly.

More about the Parasite mini-series for HBO.

A Jewish critic on Jojo Rabbit.

Adam Sandler and the Safdie Brothers reunite for this short film set in Times Square.

Jojo Rabbit versus Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be.

Leonard Maltin will be feted at this year’s TCM Film Festival.

Comedy is dealt another mortal wound as Hank Azaria caves in to the PC Police and gives up voicing the character Apu on The Simpsons.

When the city of Hollywood hooked up with Los Angeles.

What is the most expensive horror movie prop of all time?

Friday, January 24, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Last month I had said I didn’t find Knives Out as funny as other people did and I questioned whether seeing it with an audience made a difference or not. Now I’ve seen another comedy film, Jojo Rabbit, a movie I found hilarious, as did the audience I saw it with—one woman behind me was laughing her head off for most of the movie—and irony of ironies, the first time I looked it up online after seeing it, I encountered all these reviews saying how unfunny it is. (Its overall Rotten Tomatoes score, however, is a “certified fresh” 80, which is very positive.)

Granted, director Taika Waititi, who also adapted the screenplay from the book Caging Skies, walks a tightrope, attempting to find humor in a story taking place in Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler (sort of) as a supporting character. I was reminded of the 2018 Cold War comedy The Death of Stalin, which also balanced humor with the realities of life within a fascist regime—and, of course, older comedies like Life is Beautiful, The Producers, To Be or Not To Be and The Great Dictator.

Jojo deals with a young Hitler Youth recruit, one so devoted to the Nazi cause he imagines Hitler himself as his best friend, and what happens when he learns his mother is secretly hiding a Jew in their house. Why is the movie funny? For one thing, the dialogue feels almost contemporary, which is incongruous with the time and place. The Nazi characters are depicted broadly; the situations they’re put in ridiculous. Hitler especially, played by director Waititi, is practically a cartoon—and yet there are moments that remind you these are Nazis and if you’re a dissenter, or a Jew, you trifle with them at your risk. And there’s an overall message of tolerance that’s heartfelt and welcome, particularly in this time where anti-Semitism is making a comeback.

The child actor, Roman Griffin Davis, carries the bulk of the movie. He gives Jojo a naive fanaticism that almost makes him endearing. Jojo doesn’t quite measure up to his peers, most of whom bully him, but he’ll do anything to be a true soldier like his absent father, off fighting in the war. His idealized version of Hitler acts as a kind of surrogate father, but none of this is as frightening as it sounds because of the goofy tone of the movie.

And then Jojo discovers the teenage Jewish girl and things change for him; that which he’s believed in all his life about German superiority is called into question. It was good to see Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace again; she plays the Jewish girl and I think she’s even better here.

Jojo is pretty different from Knives; both are satirical, but to different degrees, and Jojo, by nature of its subject matter, is more risqué and “out there.” Did that make it easier to laugh at? Could be. Knives was an ensemble; we saw the story through different perspectives, some of which were funnier than others and all of whom were adults. Jojo is told from the angle of a ten-year-old with a very specific worldview, one we wouldn’t normally laugh at, but here it’s purposely exaggerated to a bizarre extent.

Laughing helped us, the audience, approach the premise more easily, whereas with Knives, there was no trepidation of the premise to overcome. It was easier to accept at face value, and while it was entertaining, I don’t think I felt the need to laugh as much as I did with Jojo. From the first scene and the opening credits—yes, this was a rare film with opening credits, set to the tune of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German—it gave us permission to laugh at it... and we did. Knives wasn’t quite like that, at least not for me, but that’s okay.

Friday, January 17, 2020


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

When I began WSW over nine years ago (!), I was more up on new releases than I am now. You could say I believed it was part of my responsibility as a film blogger. Hanging around classic film bloggers over time made me think otherwise, and now I no longer pay as close attention to things like who’s getting cast in what movie, what project a given director is eyeing, or what the weekend box office take for the latest franchise movie was.

So when I saw that this foreign movie I had only recently heard of called Parasite was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it took me completely by surprise—but if I had been following the Oscar race year-round, like I used to, chances are I could’ve seen it coming. This was the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. It has a score of 99 at Rotten Tomatoes. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and has been nominated for a ton of other awards around the world.

This film is a huge hit. I had thought the Academy was being enlightened and progressive by nominating it for its top honor, and they kind of are, but I think in this case, it might have been simply too big for them to ignore.

Still getting used to the name Bong Joon Ho, the director and co-writer (I keep saying “Boon Jong” instead). He’s been around awhile—months ago I saw his SF movie Snowpiercer on Netflix. I thought about doing a post on it, but never did. No real reason.

I’ve watched quite a few movies on Netflix I haven’t blogged about. That might be another way WSW has evolved: used to be I felt I needed constant content to stay visible, so I would blog four to six times a week, on everything I saw, but a pace like that was unsustainable for me. Some bloggers can do it. I can’t.

Snowpiercer had Western stars like Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton in it (a sign of how well known he is already), but Parasite was made in his native South Korea, with Korean actors. The premise is original and delightfully subversive: a dirt-poor, unemployed family figures out a way to infiltrate the household of a rich family by posing as strangers and secretly getting the established staff out, one by one, which leads to different problems. There are plans for an HBO miniseries that will expand the original story further.

Once I figured out the basic premise, I really got into the story. It’s funny in places, and the climax is a gory bloodbath, so it’s hard to classify this movie. I’ve seen it described both as a black comedy and a thriller; I lean more toward the latter but really, it’s its own thing. The class struggle is obviously a major theme, but it’s not like it preaches. Every character is unsympathetic to one degree or another, and the friction between the two families produces the movie’s memorable moments. I’m reminded of the work of Luis Bunuel, or to a lesser extent, Mike Leigh, crossed with Tarantino. I’d have to see more of Bong’s work to know whether or not this is typical of him.

Not much more to say. Good acting, good set design—the contrast between the families’ homes is sharp—great screenplay, obviously, good score. This is everything you would want in a movie.