Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Five ways for theaters to get butts back in seats

AMC Entertainment’s “Fork & Screen” theater program is the equivalent of business class on an airplane: not quite as posh as first but offering plenty of amenities. For a few dollars more than the price of a regular ticket, AMC patrons are treated to upgraded seats equipped with a personal call button they can use to order food and drinks. The menus include everything from jazzy cocktails to appetizers (the crab Rangoon dip is recommended) to pizza and pasta.
As moviegoers start to ask not just “What’s playing?” but also “What’s on the menu?” theater circuits -- even the two biggest chains, AMC and Regal -- are aggressively experimenting with upgraded services in the never-ending search to boost traffic and improve the bottom line in the fight to get audiences to leave their homes. Catering to audiences’ appetites is also seen as one of the best defenses against letting Hollywood studios dictate the rules in a new world order of VOD and windows.
I will attempt to resist going for the "make better movies" cheap shot in discussing the struggle to boost movie attendance. Truth is, if I could watch first-run movies on demand in the comfort of my own home on my digital HD flat-screen TV with surround-sound, I'd do it. (Y'know, if I, um, had any of that stuff.)

Improving the menu is certainly a good idea, as are reserved seating and even wait service, and while I, as a moviegoer, wouldn't take advantage of those options every time, it might be nice for a super-special movie, or for a date night. Last week we talked about variable ticket-pricing as an idea, one I do believe ought to be experimented with in some form.

Still, there are some more fundamental issues with the moviegoing experience that I feel need to be addressed if theaters - and by extension, studios - want more patrons.

- Enforce a zero-tolerance policy on cellphone usage. I don't think I have to explain this one, do I? If it means installing infra-red cameras in auditoriums, if it means having ushers patrol the aisles every fifteen minutes, if it means generating a small electromagnetic pulse, theater staff seriously need to curtail cellphone activity during a film and make it stick. It'll mean hurt feelings for some people, but you can always call the cops if somebody gets violent.

- Provide a babysitter service. You can charge an extra dollar or two for it, but it's as simple as providing a chaperoned room with toys and maybe a Spongebob DVD or two for the little brats to watch while their parents are watching Saw 28 or whatever. Make it clear that this is a house rule for any film rated PG-13 or higher. Also, and this needs to be enforced at the box office, if a parent with toddlers wants to see a PG-13-or-higher movie and is unwilling to use the babysitting service, then they can't get in. Period.

- Provide some healthier snack options. Recently, theaters have bristled over the possibility that they may have to disclose calorie counts for their snacks, popcorn in particular. While we acknowledge that concessions in general are huge money-makers, and in all honesty I wouldn't want popcorn to disappear from theaters, no matter how many calories they may contain, I see no problem with also offering things like fruit, yogurt, power bars, and similar items for those that want them. It's an idea whose time has come.

- Always provide a 2D option for 3D movies. Some theaters don't do this. I'd imagine most of them are smaller and want to maximize the amount of 3D showings, but not everyone is interested in seeing movies in 3D, especially if they're Clash of the Titans-style transfers from 2D. If it means having 2D screenings only on weekdays before 5PM, that's fine, but always have that 2D print available and make sure the patrons know which one they're paying for.

- Start the movie on time and keep out any latecomers. I don't think I'm the only one who despises the way theaters will say a movie starts at 7:30, then shows 20 minutes worth of ads and previews. I have grudgingly learned to accept that pre-show commercials and fluff programs like "The 20" are necessary evils, but I don't wanna see them once the time on my ticket is reached. Also, people are always gonna arrive late. I get this. Let the trailers serve as a kind of grace period for latecomers to straggle in, but once the lights go down, that should be it. Let the ushers close the doors after the opening credits (if there are any) and keep out all latecomers. Offer them a full refund on their tickets, offer them a gift certificate for their next visit, but keep them out.

I think implementing these ideas will go a longer way than installing a wine bar. If you've got similar ones, fire away.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour
last seen @ Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn NY

Surprisingly, it didn't happen all that often during my ten years in video retail. I was fortunate to have worked in places where the clientele even had an interest in foreign movies, much less chose to rent them. But every once in awhile, someone would come along who wanted to watch foreign movies dubbed instead of subtitled.

In fairness, I can understand why the average person - i.e., someone who's not necessarily a cinephile - would prefer it. It can be a bit tricky to read the English translations while trying to pay attention to the action on the screen. You're effectively dividing your concentration, and if you miss a line or two, you could lose the gist of a scene. I can see how this could be a barrier for many people who simply want to be able to watch a movie unencumbered.

Even film aficionados may have problems with subtitles. In the past, the text was sometimes too bright to be read well, especially on black and white films. And for the purists, fidelity to the original dialogue can be an issue when it comes to translating a foreign language into English. So why use subtitles at all?

For one thing, dubbing has a dubious reputation, thanks to hundreds of kung fu films. Even when done well, dubbing in English dialogue over the original language looks unnatural and can take you out of the movie. If there's a famous actor, you become especially aware that the voice you're hearing isn't his or hers. And from a purist's perspective, hearing the original language means you're watching the film closer to the way it's meant to be experienced, even with subtitles. Recent Oscar nominations for foreign-language performances by Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, and Penelope Cruz, among others, have proven that a foreign language need not be a barrier to appreciating acting skill.

Watching a foreign movie with a linguist makes one more aware of issues like these. Two weeks ago, Andrea and I went to see the French film Belle de Jour, which was part of a Catherine Denueve retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Andrea, as I've mentioned before, is polylingual, but her specialty is French. When we saw The Illusionist, that movie had no subtitles, but it had almost no dialogue either, so this was the first time she and I saw a subtitled film together.

She surprised me afterwards when she said that she relied on the subtitles to a greater degree than I thought. As a non-native, she learned her French primarily through the written word, and she has told me examples of how in the past, when she spent time in Paris, she misconstrued certain casual words and phrases because they didn't match up with her textbook knowledge of the language, even though she speaks it better than any non-native I've ever met. So she likes learning the informal aspects of the language through subtitles.

She also noticed aspects of the English translation that were slightly different from the spoken dialogue. In one scene, an older man, according to the subtitles, says "daughter," but Andrea said what he spoke was a word closer to "beloved" (if I'm remembering this correctly). We agreed that often times, subtitles needs to be concise, even if it means altering the context slightly, and in this case, "daughter" was the less distracting word.

I haven't been to BAM very often, unfortunately. It's a performance space located near downtown Brooklyn that not only shows movies, but gives concerts, dance shows and plays. It's an excellent place to visit if you're ever in Brooklyn. The auditorium where we saw Belle de Jour was a nice-sized space, though it had no central aisle and the seats were a bit small. At one point during the movie, this one dude sitting next to Andrea complained to her that she was rustling her popcorn bag too loudly. She apologized, both at that moment and after the movie ended, but he rudely brushed her off, like he didn't care. It was the only sour note of the day, and though neither of us liked it, we forgot about it in time and went off to have Thai food.

So where do y'all stand on subtitles versus dubbing?

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun
seen online via YouTube

My earliest memories of Elizabeth Taylor was through the supermarket tabloids. Every time I'd go to the supermarket or the drugstore as a kid, I'd inevitably see her face plastered somewhere on the cover of the Star or the National Enquirer - or more legit magazines like People - in the middle of some kind of drama, often involving whoever her husband of the moment was. Of course, being a kid, I never gave it much of a second thought. Eventually I learned that she was a world-famous actress who used to be big once. I saw that she was pals with Michael Jackson and that she was involved in the fight against AIDS. Still, her Hollywood legacy never meant anything to me.

Once I started working in video retail, I watched a few of her old movies and got a greater sense of her as an actress. I remember being absolutely blown away by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It totally did not seem like an old film at all, and the performances were so super-charged and mesmerizing. I think that might be my favorite film of hers. Considering she learned her trade on the job, as it were, without any formal training, she metamorphosed into a formidable actress over time. Perhaps beginning as a child star helped in that regard.

As for her very public personal life, well, I can't imagine what would make one woman go through so many different husbands. Maybe it was a by-product of living the life of a Hollywood celebrity; the way fame messes with your head. Maybe it was vanity, treating her men as her playthings. Maybe she simply had a hard time holding on to love, as often as it seemed to come to her. I couldn't begin to say for certain and there's no longer any point in speculating.

In A Place in the Sun, we see Taylor on the cusp of womanhood, with a sexual allure and even a hint of a bad-girl streak. The differences between her role and Shelley Winters' role, however, weren't pronounced enough in my opinion. One is rich, the other poor, but other than that they didn't seem that much different. I loved the scene where Taylor, out driving with Montgomery Clift, tries to evade a cop, well aware that she's speeding, and ends up getting caught anyway. It turns out she's done this so many times that the cop knows her personally, and she treats the ticket she gets completely frivolously. I wanted to see more of that. That struck me as the only time in the whole movie where she showed some genuine depth of character, and it went as quickly as it came.

I didn't buy Clift's romance with Winters. He seemed a bit too hot and heavy over a plain-jane like her - not that she was a bad person, but their relationship seemed rushed. I would've preferred Clift to regard Taylor as more of a temptation that he struggles to resist. The way it was presented, it was as if he just went from Winters to Taylor without any kind of second thoughts. And if he was supposed to be a cad, like his character in The Heiress, that didn't come across strongly enough either. I get the impression that Place wanted to be a film noir, but wasn't willing to push the characters far enough in that direction, which is especially galling given that it's based on a book called An American Tragedy.

Still, Place shows off Taylor as a young woman coming into her own quite nicely, and offers a hint of the seductive siren she would eventually become.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: School of Rock

Still my favorite Jack Black movie. Yeah, his schtick can get old in a hurry, but this was still a lot of fun. When I saw the movie poster for the first time I thought perhaps he was gonna play Neil Young - which I suppose he could still do...

Led Zeppelin, "Immigrant Song"

T. Rex, "Ballrooms of Mars"

The Stooges, "TV Eye"

Friday, March 25, 2011

Modern Times

This is Make 'em Laugh Week! All this week we'll look at films by some of the greatest comedic legends in film history and talk about what makes them funny.

Modern Times
seen online via YouTube

There's a cafe in Greenwich Village that in recent weeks has taken to showing old Charlie Chaplin films. Not as events, though; they have a flat-screen TV inside and a collection of Chaplin films on DVD that they play all day. The last time I was there I sat through most of The Kid. I appeared to be the only patron in the cafe interested in the film, though I wasn't really paying attention to who else was watching.

I'd imagine that everything about Chaplin that can be said has just about been said. The fact that his films still have the ability to delight after so many generations is a testament to his skill as an entertainer and a filmmaker - at a time when the medium was still very young and full of potential. I've seen most of his greatest hits from the silent era and I've enjoyed them.

Modern Times is unique. It was made long after the silent era passed (1936, to be precise), so I expected it to be a "talkie," and in a way, it is. There are bits of spoken monologue here and there throughout the film, as well as some singing and even sound effects, ranging from police sirens to barking dogs to falling objects, but for the most part it's treated as a silent, with title cards and an ongoing score.

Indeed, every time I thought it was one thing, it turned out to be another. The steel factory in the beginning is evocative of Metropolis, to the point where I thought this was gonna be a sci-fi movie. Then I thought it would be some sort of satire on the class struggle, what with all the images of the poor and unemployed (this was made during the Depression). Then I thought it would be a love story, when Chaplin's Tramp meets the orphan girl, but they don't even so much as kiss. Their relationship is more like a chaste companionship.

As the title suggests, the film touches upon different aspects of American society as it existed in the 1930s: abject poverty, of course, but also industrialization, Communism, unionization. For all the travails Chaplin's Tramp and the orphan girl go through, they still find a reason to hope at the end, and I imagine that must have been a powerful message for Depression-era audiences.

Of course, modern times in 2011 aren't much better. Hope feels harder to cling to than ever before, and I'll admit, Chaplin's optimism in the face of despair seems a bit unrealistic to me. Yet how can you fault him for that? How can you fault him for wanting to give people a reason to believe?

This movie may sound depressing, but it's the exact opposite, because all the Chaplin hallmarks are there: the innocent bumbling through situations, the chases, the slapstick, and above all the heart. At the end, Chaplin and the girl's future remains as uncertain as it did at the outset, but you believe they'll manage somehow. And that's a hell of a feat.

By the way, did I mention that 2011 marks this film's 75th anniversary?


Previously on Make 'em Laugh Week:
The Flying Deuces
The General
Horse Feathers

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Horse Feathers

This is Make 'em Laugh Week! All this week we'll look at films by some of the greatest comedic legends in film history and talk about what makes them funny.

Horse Feathers

seen online via YouTube

I've loved the Marx Brothers from the first time I saw them, which was back in my Film History class in college. I think in all of film history, only the Monty Python troupe comes closest to matching the sense of anarchic, anything-goes silliness embodied by these guys, both in their physical slapstick and especially in their wacky wordplay.

They made it look so easy. When you've got four different performers, with four distinct approaches to their craft, all sharing the same stage, one would imagine that conflicting egos would make it difficult for their work to thrive. Maybe it was - but they all knew their roles and they all knew how to play off of each other so well. Groucho was the ringleader, but sometimes he'd play straight man to Chico. Zeppo was the "normal" one, but he'd get plenty of co
medic moments. And even though Harpo never spoke, he made his presence felt. Plus, they were musicians. To see Harpo play his harp, you really get a feel for how talented they all were.

Horse Feathers, like many of their best movies, follows a familiar formula: Groucho has a scheme of some sort, the other Marxes get involved, opposing forces are at work, and the straights are either befuddled or amused (or both) at Groucho's ways. And a girl is involved. But it works every time because they execute it so professionally and with such verve. I'd stop short of calling it flawless - the cinematography is not as imaginative as it could be during the musical numbers, and while they do change the lyrics each time it's used (which is a clever idea), one gets a little tired of hearing "Everyone Says I Love You" after awhile. Still, I laughed my head off the whole way through. The Marx Brothers were just that good, time and time again.


Previously on Make 'em Laugh Week:
The Flying Deuces
The General

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I'm planning a special double-feature for next Monday: A Place in the Sun and Giant. We'll talk more about her then. For now, I'll simply say that she was one of the all-time greats, and she'll be missed.

UPDATE 3.24.11: I've changed my mind; I'm gonna stick with just A Place in the Sun, though I may write about Giant sometime down the road.

The General

This is Make 'em Laugh Week! All this week we'll look at films by some of the greatest comedic legends in film history and talk about what makes them funny.

The General

seen online via YouTube

While I was watching Buster Keaton's The General, I thought perhaps I had make a mistake in choosing this one. I'm fairly certain that I've seen one or two Keaton films before, and I knew he was regarded as a cinematic funnyman, but this is more like an action film than a straight-up comedy. Regardless, even if it's not as riotously funny as I thought it would be, it's still a pretty awesome movie.

It's hard to believe that he did his own stunts. There is a comedic element to the situations he gets himself in, coming from, I suspect, the fact that he's not some muscle-bound action hero; he's just a regular-looking little guy in way over his head. He looks beleaguered at every turn, and you get the sense that he has no real plan in his attempt to save his train and his girlfriend, that he's making everything up as he goes along, which can come across as funny (even if I didn't laugh that much). And yet he comes out a hero in the end. As co-director, Keaton must have had a hell of a time choreographing the action sequences.

It probably goes without saying that Keaton must have had a remarkable stamina to do as much running, jumping, and leaping as he does here. And again, it should be emphasized that if he were alive today and you saw him walking down the street and didn't know who he was, you wouldn't give him a second glance. We hear quite a bit these days about actors who get into incredible physical shape to do action movies, and perhaps we get to see them flex their muscles doing whatever they need to do. There's a certain glamor to it all, a sexiness that's as much part of the movie as anything else. The General doesn't make Keaton look sexy or glamorous, but then again, filmmaking was quite different back in the day.

The movie is set during the Civil War, but it's no Gone With the Wind. It's more like a "Civil War For Dummies" version. I admit, it did kinda bug me a little bit to see that Keaton's character was on the Confederate side and not the Union, but it does not matter at all because the movie is so entertaining. The version on YouTube has a terrific jazzy score to it as well.


Previously on Make 'em Laugh Week:
The Flying Deuces

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Could variable ticket-pricing work? attendance in 2010 endured its largest drop since 2005. The declines in moviegoing, apparently, won't be reversed by a surge in quality.

On Twitter, the suggestions have been flying for some time on what, in fact, will reverse it: more in-theater amenities, more 3-D releases, fewer 3-D releases, across-the-board price reductions (unlikely to happen), assorted other recommendations. But the sales slump also calls to mind another idea that has been alternately floated and dismissed over the years: variable pricing. A jargony term for a straightforward concept, variable pricing basically means that ticket prices will rise or falling depending on a slew of factors, most notably how much people want those tickets in the first place.
This is an interesting idea worth talking about further. I'm fortunate in that I live in an area where, if I don't want to pay $12 at one theater for a movie, I can go elsewhere and find that same movie for a cheaper price. Maybe it means I have to go at a certain time of day. Maybe it means I have to wait several weeks before it reaches that theater. But I have that luxury. When I lived in Columbus, I made sure to familiarize myself with the theaters there and find where and when the best times were to see a first-run movie. I even took advantage of advance screening passes given out by the local alternative weeklies. As I've said before, one doesn't have to pay full price for a movie if one really doesn't want to, but by the same token, it's easier to do this in some places than in many others.

Now if somebody were to come along and offer variable pricing, I think this could be a good idea in that it would make people think about the choices they make at the box office. There'll be complaining, naturally, but once people realize that the system will benefit those who order early, I think it could work out over time. Besides, people who unequivocally want to see Transformers or Harry Potter or Captain America, especially on opening weekend, will see it regardless of price, I believe.

My concern is how this would effect the non-chain, local theaters. Would they be able to compete? I suspect it'll once again come down to survival of the fittest. Many local theaters offer matinees and other similar discount deals, but do they offer modern amenities like stadium seating, digital projection and sound, and all that kinda stuff? (Keep in mind that I'm not talking about the art houses; they cater to a whole different audience.)

I'd like to see variable pricing experimented with in some form, just to see how people take to it. I'm not saying it'll work, but it may end up making for smarter moviegoers.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Flying Deuces

This is Make 'em Laugh Week! All this week we'll look at films by some of the greatest comedic legends in film history and talk about what makes them funny.

The Flying Deuces

seen online via YouTube

I am ashamed to admit that prior to last night, I had never seen a Laurel & Hardy movie before. Can't say why. I mean, I knew who they were, but I dunno, I just never took an opportunity to see any of their films before. Now I have, though. I realize The Flying Deuces is one of their much later works, and doesn't represent L&H at their prime, but for what it was, I thought it was pleasant enough. I definitely LOL'd at a few moments, and I think this represents L&H as well as anything else I could've picked.

What struck me about L&H, practically from the beginning of the film, is how they must have been the inspiration for the Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton characters from The Honeymooners. I've always been a big fan of that old TV show. I'd always watch the marathon sessions on local TV whenever they aired back in the day, and I had never, ever made the connection between Ralph & Ed and L&H until now.

Another surprise to me was that Hardy, the fat one, was also the smarter of the two. Since he's billed second, I had automatically figured he played second fiddle to Laurel. Plus, I probably made an association with that other classic fat guy-skinny guy combo, Abbott & Costello, where Costello, the fat guy, is the dim one.

Like many classic comedy film stars, L&H play archetypal versions of themselves in Deuces (they're referred to by their real names). Hardy - or at least his on-screen avatar - strikes me as a blue-collar type striving to be a proper gentleman, while Laurel comes across as a down-and-out upper-class type who never fit into high society. I think Laurel is even supposed to be British, although his accent is nowhere near as strong as the antagonist in this story.

There's a genteel manner to their friendship, and almost, dare I say it, an innocence as well. They stick together because they don't have anyone else, and the cliche is true: they do bicker like an old married couple. In these modern, sexually explicit times, it's become far too tempting to look for examples of Ho Yay in older works like this, but that's because it's also become far too easy. For example, in the scene where Hardy is about to kill himself by sinking into the Seine River, he insists on taking Laurel with him because, he says, Laurel would be nothing without him. Even though Hardy's misery is his alone and not Laurel's, he still won't commit himself to the hereafter without his heterosexual life mate.

Deuces has some material that in any other movie might be pretty grim. Hardy wants to die because the girl he loves loves someone else. L&H talk about death and dying, and whether or not they'll come back in another form. And as for the ending, well, I watched it thinking, "They're not really gonna go there, are they?" and... they do go there. But it should be emphasized that all of this is played for laughs. I doubt all their films have such black humor, though.

L&H started out as silent film stars, and I think this movie could have worked as a silent, with title cards of course. Once they decide to join the Foreign Legion, much of the humor is physical, including chase scenes and slapstick. There are some out-of-nowhere musical interludes, though, including a song by Hardy.

L&H didn't have the verbal perspicacity of the Marx Brothers (who we'll talk about on Thursday), or the propensity for physical violence as the Three Stooges. In all honesty, they come across to me as fairly vanilla by comparison, and maybe that's why I never bothered with them until now. Still, for what they are, they're alright. I can't complain. And it's a real revelation to see how they must have inspired Jackie Gleason and Art Carney years later.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: The Big Chill

Don't have much to say about the movie; it doesn't mean as much to me as it does others, but then I'm not a baby boomer. Can't go wrong with the soundtrack, though.

Three Dog Night, "Joy to the World"

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, "I Second That Emotion"

The Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"

Friday, March 18, 2011

He Got Game

He Got Game
first seen in New York, NY


LAMBs in the Director's Chair is an ongoing event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given director. The current subject is Spike Lee. The complete list of posts for this event will go up March 25-27 at the LAMB site.

I used to follow basketball, and I liked it, although I never had quite the same kind of passion for it as I did baseball. My father was the big sports fan in the family, and through him I acquired a love of the game(s) too. (In a couple of weeks I'll do a post on baseball.) I've seen the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden a few times. The last time I went with this friend of a friend who I didn't even know, but our mutual friend couldn't make it to the game at the last minute and I volunteered to take his ticket. I even went to a game with Vija once, who is so not a sports fan at all, but I think she still had a decent time.

In high school I would make a half-hea
rted attempt at the game, but it never did much for me. There was this one skinny kid named Jeff who always kicked my butt at basketball and loved to rub my face in it. It was a friendly rivalry, though; he was never mean about it. Volleyball was more my thing back then. Now that was a game I took seriously!

In my neighborhood these days, I always see kids and adults on basketball courts, early in the morning and late at night, in the hot summer and even in the cold winter. There's a local basketball league for kids that plays during the summer, with uniforms and referees and everything.

As with movie stars, I try not to think about the amounts of money professional athletes in general get paid, and pro basketball players in particular. I know that there are some pros who came straight out of high school and didn't bother with college, which is mind-boggling. But even for the majority that do go to college, sometimes I wonder how much of an education they get while they play basketball - or football, for that matter; this can apply equally there. After all, even with championship teams, not everyone can make it to the pros, and once they leave the cocoon of college, life in the real world begins. And for these athletes who have been given privileged status because of their physical abilities, who have been specially catered to and fawned over and given carte blanche to do as they please as long as they win - that transition can be a bit of a shock, to say the least.

He Got Game sheds some light on what it's like for a young athlete facing the temptations that instant success can bring. For a non-actor, actual pro basketball player Ray Allen is... better than Shaquille O'Neal, I guess, though I realize that's not saying much. But then, Shaq never had a role as good as this. Denzel Washington could read the phone book and make it sound compelling, so it's no surprise that he's at his usual level of greatness here, but then, working with Spike Lee always brings out his A-game, so to speak.

For all the strides Spike has made
in advancing black cinema, he still seems very much an outsider, not unlike fellow New Yorker Woody Allen. They both peaked early, Allen with Annie Hall and Spike with Do the Right Thing, and have evolved their filmmaking styles since, doing the kinds of movies they want to do, both within the system and outside it. Spike, of course, has had the tougher road to go down, in large part because he unapologetically makes black movies, and while his greatest works may not have gotten Oscar recognition like Annie Hall and other Allen films, they have still stood the test of time, they are still discussed, and they still retain their power. In the end, a director can't ask for much more.

In addition to He Got Game, I've seen the following films by Spike: She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Inside Man and Passing Strange. Do the Right Thing is still my favorite, though I also like Crooklyn a lot too.

Previously in LAMBs in the Director's Chair:
Francis Ford Coppola
Terry Gilliam

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes
first seen in New York, NY

Oh, how I wish I could've met Frank McCourt. I remember applying to Stuyvesant High School, but I didn't make it in - it's a tough nut to crack. Not that I would've known who he was back then. I certainly wouldn't have known that he'd go on to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. But if his books are any indication, I know I would've enjoyed being in his classroom.

I first learned who he was through the movie version of Angela's Ashes. I was prepared to see it after watching the trailer because Emily Watson was the star and it looked interesting. Then one day I was in a Barnes & Noble and I saw the original book. A sticker on the cover indicated that it won the Pulitzer. I decided to give it a try.

Am I glad I did. Anyone who has read McCourt's trilogy of memoirs - Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man - knows what a command of the language he had. He wrote in such an intimate yet unusual style; for instance, he didn't bother with quotation marks when describing a conversation. It's as if the words were flowing so easily that he didn't want to waste time with them; he just wanted to tell the story as it came to him. That's only an interpretation, though. I have no idea why he never used quotation marks, but his facility for characterization and creating individual voices was so good that it didn't matter, in the end.

Ireland has a certain romanticism to it that's often played up in fiction. McCourt didn't indulge in that to a great degree in Ashes. Indeed, the absolute misery of his childhood there is almost a selling point. One can hardly believe how bad it was for him, and yet, his prose is so evocative that you can't help but keep reading. Did he exaggerate? We'll never know, but it's always been my opinion that autobiographers stretch the truth in places in order to make for a better story. I do it with this very blog, sometimes.

I would imagine, in fact, that anyone writing a memoir would eventually have to take some liberties in the story of their life. No one can be expected to remember everything about their lives; I know I certainly don't. Plus there are certain biases and prejudices that are bound to rear their heads; for example, arguments with friends or relatives that didn't go the author's way. The author may present both sides of the argument, but he's naturally gonna want you to be sympathetic to his side, and he may decide to frame his argument in that manner. These things don't necessarily make for a bad book, though, because an autobiography is by definition a subjective account. And in the end, it's all about telling a compelling story.

As for the movie, well, I always use Ashes as an example of why it's always best to read the book after you see the movie. The movie was good. Great acting, a screenplay that hit the highlights of the book (because there were so many little stories within this one big story, it would've been impossible to get them all), and director Alan Parker captured the look of 1930s Ireland well. However, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed, because no movie, however well done, could possibly capture the spirit of McCourt's prose: the run-on sentences, the wandering tangents, the colorful phrases ("don't give a fiddler's fart"), all of it. But what can you do?

Frank McCourt lived an uncommon life that he captured in three extraordinary books. I only wish he had tried his hand at a fiction novel before he left us. Who knows what kind of stories he could've written?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sid and Nancy

Sid and Nancy
from Jenny's video collection
circa 1997

LAMB Acting School 101 is a regular event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given actor. This month's subject is
Gary Oldman. The complete list of posts for this month will go up March 24 at the LAMB site.

Punk rock! The first time I was exposed to punk was in high school. It was the Ramones. It took me a little longer to really appreciate punk though, since this was also the period where I discovered classic rock for the first time - although now I suppose the Ramones are considered classic rock by some.

Jenny has been a punk rock diva for as long as I've known her. She's been the lead singer and co-lyricist of at least two different punk bands that have played around the city (one of them an all-girl band), and I've seen both of them play live on multiple occasions. To be honest, Jenny will never be mistaken for Pat Benatar or Ann Wilson in terms of singing ability, but with her it's almost besides the point. She's all about putting on a stage performance. She's been known to wear a "devil" costume, complete with a plastic pitchfork, and prance around the stage, gyrating sexily while screaming her songs. Not exactly Lady Gaga, but for what it is, it's pretty funny and entertaining. And she loves it, she absolutely loves the thrill of making a spectacle of herself in the name of rock and roll.

So it was with more than a little measure of excitement that I first saw Sid and Nancy with her, at her old Alphabet City apartment. Jenny's lived all over the city; this was one of many apartments she lived in and perhaps the one I associate most with her. The Sex Pistols definitely embody the things she strives for as a rock star, at least on-stage. I've always been of two minds about them: I dig their music but Johnny Rotten's voice can grate after a certain point. There's a story about them that pretty much sums up not only themselves, but perhaps punk in general: the original bassist was a big Paul McCartney fan, but made the mistake of letting that fact slip in front of the others. When they found out, they kicked him out of the band! His replacement: Sid Vicious, who was no Paul McCartney, to put it mildly.

Gary Oldman plays Sid, and he captures the manic, frenzied energy of the man perfectly. Oldman has always been an outstanding actor, mostly playing either bad guys or crazy guys - or both. Sid and Nancy, though, is one of the few films where he's been center stage. He's an acting chameleon, disappearing within his roles completely, and maybe that's one reason why he's not a bigger name. Many superstar actors, it seems, develop an on-screen persona that shows through from one role to the next, and I think audiences find comfort in that. When you see, say, Adam Sandler in a movie, chances are you know more or less what to expect from him. That's not always true with someone like Oldman, but that's okay because he's so good.

Besides Sid and Nancy, I've seen him in the following: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, State of Grace, JFK, Bram Stoker's Dracula, True Romance, The Professional, Immortal Beloved, Murder in the First, Basquiat, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, Lost in Space '98, The Contender, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I think my favorite performance of his is Immortal Beloved, where he plays Beethoven.

Previously in LAMB Acting School:
Natalie Portman

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fairy tale movies that probably won't get made

Though previous Hollywood treatments of fairytales, such as the classic 1937 Snow White cartoon, have often been aimed squarely at family audiences, the ancient stories offer a wealth of opportunities to probe much darker themes. Beneath the magical surface of a fairytale, with its castles and princesses, often lurk ideas around sexuality, the dangers of growing up and leaving home, relationships between children and parents, and the threat that adult strangers can pose.
So it looks like fairy tales are the new superheroes. Well, anything for a quick buck, I suppose, although I'll say this much: fairy tales, at least, have historically been extremely mutable from one generation of storytellers to another. If you're a producer, you don't have to worry about fanboys complaining because the screenplay left out the part about the Big Bad Wolf's years spent as a lion tamer in Singapore, which is crucial to understanding why he wants to eat the Three Little Pigs in the first place and why did they have to change it anyway?

This wave of fairy tale movies is gonna run the gamut from goth fantasy to action-adventure (one NSFW image), and even a few name directors are involved. Given that, it's probably only a matter of time until we see movies like these (or not)...

- Darren Aronofsky's Goldilocks: The stress of being a "perfect little girl" for her constantly-disapproving parents leads Goldilocks to a life of juvenile delinquency. She breaks into other people's homes, imagining herself living different lives. She has illusions of being pursued by three bears, and she takes drugs to make them go away, but the illusions only increase, driving her slowly into madness.

- James Cameron's Jack and the Beanstalk: Shot entirely within cyberspace itself with a 4-dimensional digital camera powered by a neutron star, this version of Jack and the Beanstalk is an allegory for the rape of the natural world in general and the Amazon rainforest in particular. Jack is portrayed as a white male colonialist who exploits nature (in the form of the beanstalk) in order to reap the spoils of the City in the Clouds. The Giant, a sympathetic figure for the first time, represents the indigenous tribes of South America who fall victim to the white man's lies, but Jack gets defeated by his own actions in the end.

- Christopher Nolan's Rumplestiltskin: Set in the 19th century, Nolan's screenplay explains, in great detail, using the scientific principles of Da Vinci, Copernicus and Gallileo, among others, how straw can in fact be turned into gold. No one understands it, but the fight scenes are awesome.

- Judd Apatow's Three Little Pigs: One dresses like a slob, one constantly stuffs his face, and the other is a misogynist. They're all buddies who hang out together and act like teenagers even though they're in their thirties. They fight amongst themselves in order to impress this girl named Bebe Wolfe, who is not only incredibly hot, but is actually willing to give these three losers the time of day.

- Michael Bay's Pinocchio: Pinocchio is an android created by the government, Jiminy Cricket is a hot chick, there's an entire army of military troops hunting Pinocchio down, and of course - GIANT CGI WHALE. And explosions.

Feel free to add your own suggestions.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I Will Follow

I Will Follow
seen @ AMC Loews 34th Street, New York NY

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the title, I Will Follow, is in fact a U2 reference! Beverly Todd's character is a session musician who worked with a wide array of pop and rock stars in her life. Though she was never a star, music industry insiders knew and respected her. In several flashbacks, we see that she's a big U2 fan, especially of their earlier, pre-Joshua Tree material. It's a bit of a shame that we never get to see her sing a U2 song, or any song for that matter, but I guess paying for the rights would've been difficult for this low-budget film. I point this out because it's a rare, wonderful example of showing black characters who listen to more than just hip-hop and R&B.

I imagine the title must allude to the relationship between Todd's Amanda and Salli Richardson-Whitfield's Maye, her niece. In the wake of Amanda's death, Maye packs up her aunt's possessions and attempts to come to terms with not only her death, but the loose ends of her own life. Maye "followed" Amanda in life; in fact they were closer than Amanda was to her own daughter Fran, which is a major bone of contention between the two cousins. Maye doesn't aspire to be a singer herself, though, so I'm a tad unclear as to the full significance of the title.

Follow is a character study, carried by SRW's sterling performance as Maye. Throughout the course of the day, friends, strangers, relations and lovers move in and out of Maye's life, all of them reflecting in some manner on her relationship with Amanda. This movie doesn't wallow in grief and misery, however. There are tense moments, but there are loving and relaxed ones as well, although sometimes the score oversells the emotion of the former and threatens to bring the film down into Lifetime Channel fare. A key scene between Maye and Fran about halfway in is a perfect example. The treacly music felt like a distraction from the excellent acting on display between SRW and Michole White.

Writer-director Ava DuVernay centers the bulk of the action within Amanda's house, but also incorporates some nice "wandering-eye" shots of the surrounding landscape, often juxtaposed with dialogue. The editing is a bit heavy-handed in places, though; sometimes it seems like she's going for a certain mood and it ends up calling more attention to itself than it should, but those moments are few. Follow was shot on digital video and it looks very fine.

The opening-day crowd was large and enthusiastic; the small screening room was at least three-quarters full at the show I attended. The audience was almost entirely black, and mostly female. I'd estimate the age range as being primarily in the 30s-to-50s. Representatives from the Urbanworld Film Festival and Imagenation spoke before the movie's start about Follow, as well as AFFRM and its mission. SRW was there too, and she stayed afterward for a brief Q-and-A.

Follow is only playing for a limited time, so if you're in or near one of the cities where it's playing, catch it as soon as possible.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Big Heat

The Big Heat
seen online via YouTube

The Big Heat was a terrific movie, but I couldn't help thinking about all the familiar cop movie cliches that have become so familiar to modern audiences, in particular: "They killed his wife/girlfriend/son/parakeet - now he's out for revenge!" We laugh because they've become so familiar and have been parodied so often, but they had to have come from somewhere. I recognized this trope, yet it still had an air of freshness while seeing it here. Part of it had to do with the violence, which you just don't expect from an old movie, not even a classic noir like this, and yet it's there (this must have been the movie where Lee Marvin's on-screen persona was born).

Part of it was also Glenn Ford's slow-burn performance - Glenn Ford, who always struck me as one of cinema's nice guys. Here he's knocking out fools and choking women and acting as tough as any Bogart character, yet he still has that veneer of decency and compassion to him. His rage is simmering just below the surface, yet it never quite erupts the way it might in someone like Marlon Brando or Jimmy Cagney; it spills out slowly, measuredly, but is no less dangerous for it, and in a way, that's almost more unsettling, coming as it does from a good man pushed too far (another cliche).

Don't have too much more to say about this film. It was on my schedule for weeks but I kept pushing it back because other films had taken priority, so I'm glad it's behind me now.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau
seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream, NY

The concept of free will is something that's interested me ever since I first read the great epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in college, and learned about the ancient Greek gods. It would always frustrate me that the humans in the story never seemed to care that their lives were being manipulated by the gods, often very explicitly and unsubtly. I know that they had a different attitude on the matter than modern man, but still, I can't understand how anyone could go through life knowing that they're little more than puppets on strings.

A few years ago, I wrote a short story in which the protagonist, armed with knowledge of future events, is in a position to change the timeline for the better, but at every turn he is cautioned against tampering with humanity's ability to decide their future for themselves. In the end, he does alter the timeline, but I deliberately left the consequences of his act vague, and I emphasized the fact that things could still end up the same as before. What the new future would become was not as important as the fact that it was literally unwritten.

The Adjustment Bureau plays with the same concept, imagining a cosmic corporation that charts the course of humanity. As with my short story (which is absolutely nothing like this movie), the protagonist who attempts to alter fate does so out of love, though in my case it was the love of a son for his mother. It has been argued that this movie is an allegory for religion, which reminds me of those Christian bumper stickers that say "Relax, God's in charge." This, in turn, goes back to the question of how people can live their lives knowing their fate is not in their own hands.

In one sense, I suppose it's easier. Believing that one's future is in the hands of a higher authority means one doesn't have to do much. It requires a great amount of faith, but if one can manage it, then it seems to me the rest doesn't matter. That always struck me as the problem with religion - that faith in a higher authority can be used to justify anything. One of the characters in Bureau realizes this, which is likely why he chooses to do what he does in the second half of the story (trying to avoid spoilers here). It's the same reason why I can't wrap my head around astrology, and I have had epic arguments with people about that.

After I saw Bureau, I went back home and re-read my story. I wrote it for a cartoonist friend on the occasion of the birth of her child, and there are indirect references to her work woven throughout the story. I've often wanted to re-write it as a more generalized story, without those Easter eggs, but I just can't do it. It wouldn't be the same.

There was this trio of old people about five or six rows behind me when I saw Bureau, and in the beginning they felt the need to remark at every little odd thing that happens. You'd think they never saw a sci-fi movie before - who knows, maybe they haven't! I was on the verge of moving to the other side of the auditorium, but once the movie settled in, so did they, and I didn't hear from them until the end. Afterwards, I heard them note Anthony Mackie's name in the closing credits, and I heard one of them say something like, "Oh yeah, that's the guy from The Hurt Locker." I was impressed that not only had they seen The Hurt Locker, but that they remembered who Mackey was (he's not exactly a household name), so I forgave them for their earlier yapping.

So how do you feel about the concept of free will versus predestination? Like I said, this is a topic that interests me and I always like to hear from others about it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

AFFRM to launch 'Follow' this weekend

...Mainstream, black themed films have all but disappeared in recent years. And as independent film in general continues to maintain its precarious toehold in the pecking order, African-American independent film, aside from the black film festival circuit, is barely on the radar, and distribution remains a challenge—to say the least. Enter AFFRM, the brainchild of DuVernay and organizers of some of the black film festivals. Their goal is simple: to eventually release two films a year; quality independent movies from black filmmakers and aimed at black audiences that would otherwise languish in distribution limbo.
I had mentioned AFFRM here before, but now that the group is ready to release I Will Follow in six national markets, including here in New York, it's time to revisit this story. AFFRM has been gathering quite a bit of press in the past couple of months. They had a presence at Sundance, and since then they've gotten write-ups and mentions in The Root and the Philadelphia Sun, among other places. As for the movie, well, you can't ask for a better endorsement than one from Roger Ebert himself.

AFFRM comes at an appropriate time. With black actors finding it harder to maintain a presence in mainstream films, black films in general will become harder to find, so there's a lot riding on the success of this program. Not just new voices are needed in black film, but different ones; different viewpoints, filmmaking styles, genres, etc. AFFRM could be an outlet for that.

The host festival in New York is the Urbanworld Film Festival, and I Will Follow will play at the AMC 34th Street in Manhattan. It'll also play at these locations around the country. My review of the film will go up next Monday (and yeah, it'll be an actual review instead of the usual kind of tangential posts I write).

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Heiress

The Heiress
last seen online via Youtube

This past weekend I hung out in Washington Square Park for the first time in many months. It was a nice night, a bit of a chill but still comfortable enough to be outside in. This place isn't as prominent in my memory as Central Park, but I think it's especially noteworthy as being representative of Greenwich Village in general, a neighborhood that has meant a great deal to me over the years.

When I think of WS I mostly think of musicians and other street performers. The Village, of course, has a long, proud tradition of being a musical mecca (my sister recently played a show on Bleecker Street with her band, as a matter of fact). Sometimes, though, it does tend to come across as being frozen in time, musically speaking. Last Saturday night I saw a cluster of musicians gathered between the central fountain and the great arch that frames Fifth Avenue, singing the same songs I inevitably hear whenever I come down there, no matter who sings them: "Me and Bobby McGee," "Natural Woman," "Wild Horses," "Bad Moon Rising," and of course, Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." I cannot begin to tell you how many times I hear that particular song played in the park by somebody nearly every time I come there.

I love these songs too, don't get me wrong, but it's uncanny how so many different musicians keep coming back to them whenever they play in WS. Then again, I suppose they could be the same people every time. I couldn't tell you for certain. While the park certainly gets its share of individual performers, you'll usually see groups of musicians gathered in spots around the fountain, some playing guitars, some playing conga drums, a few with harmonicas or tambourines, but everybody singing those same songs from a lifetime ago... again and again.

I don't wanna sound like I'm picking on these people, either. They're a huge part of the park's identity and they make it more pleasant by their presence. I always anticipate hearing musicians whenever I go there, especially in the summertime, the best time for it. But a little variety in the set list would be nice. Some original music would be really nice. Remind me one day to share the story of the woman who played her own songs just off of Christopher Street, near the infamous Stonewall bar - and who even gave me an audition for her band once.

Anyway, I posted about this yesterday on my Facebook page, and I was pleasantly surprised to get a bunch of responses to it from people who either agreed, disagreed, had their own memories of the park, or just wanted to make fun of the whole idea. I joked at one point that one day I'll get a band together and come down there to play Bon Jovi covers. I'm reasonably certain I could sing a halfway decent version of "Wanted Dead or Alive" if you lower the octave a bit.

The first time I saw The Heiress was in high school English class, after having read the book Washington Square, on which it's based. I was blown away by it then and never forgot it since - and I'm not normally once who goes in for upper-class, gowns-and-tuxes period dramas (though there are a few I enjoy). I read a review of it on another site recently and got the urge to see it again (though I swear I wasn't thinking about it on Saturday night). You feel for Olivia de Havilland throughout the whole movie, especially at the end, when she finally takes control of her life and her love - and if this is not one of the all-time great movie endings, I don't know what is. (Also, this is the second movie in a row in which embroidery is a running motif, following last week's Kamikaze Girls. Didn't plan that either.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: The Graduate

I dunno, I don't think I'm feeling the Set List thing anymore. Trying to come up with appropriate songs every week is tougher than I thought, so I'm gonna go back to just soundtracks for now. This blog is still very much a work in progress, folks.

So: Simon & Garfunkel. My friend Scott is an awesome cartoonist (don't believe me? Look at his webpage) as well as a huge S&G fan, and every now and then he'll sneak an S&G reference into his work. He even used Art Garfunkel as a character once, albeit a thinly disguised version.

I saw Paul Simon solo in a concert in Central Park, which was just as good as his S&G concert in Central Park (which I didn't go to, but I have the CD). When I was in college, I briefly tried my hand at being a musician and one of the songs I recorded was a cover of "The Sounds of Silence." I gave it more of a rockin' edge, and I sung it at a lower octave because there's no way in hell I can hit those high notes.

"April Come She Will"

"Scarborough Fair/Canticle"

"The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kamikaze Girls

Kamikaze Girls
seen online via YouTube

The first time I saw The Matrix - a movie I had to be dragged to, by the way, because I had no interest at first - one of my first impressions, besides "OMG what a friggin' AWESOME MOVIE" was that it was like watching a live-action anime. Many of the tropes commonly associated with Japanese sci-fi cartoons - leaping hundreds of feet in the air, impossible acrobatic moves, complex and fast-moving fight scenes shot from unusual angles - were on display here. In high school, I was into anime (so I knew, then as now, that it's more than just sci-fi), and through the subsequent years I saw how Asian culture in general permeated Western society, especially with the rise of manga comics. Still, seeing an American action film that so much resembled the anime cartoons I'd watched with my friends as a teenager was breathtaking, to say the least. Eventually I'd see a few Japanese live-action imports that resembled anime to an even greater degree than The Matrix.

Japanese pop culture is unlike anything in the West. I'm sure you've seen examples: the manga comics of Rumiko Takahashi, the music of Shonen Knife, the anime films of Satoshi Kon, the live-action films of Takashi Miike; the list goes on. I am not qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject, but I will say that much of the cross-pollination between East and West seems to come through the younger generation. Walk into the manga section of any Barnes & Noble, for example, and you'll see nothing but kids sprawled out on the floor reading for hours at a time. While I certainly like some of this stuff myself - how can anyone not dig the anime of Hayao Miyazaki or the music of Puffy AmiYumi? - I know I feel old sometimes looking at the way kids embrace all this pop detritus from across the Pacific...

...which brings us to the film Kamikaze Girls. This was the movie that the young ladies of the podcast Some Cast It Hot raved about when I listened to their show. It's basically about the friendship between two teenage girls, one a girly-girl outcast who digs 18th Century European Rococo art and fashion; the other a tomboy biker chick; both united by a jones for embroidery. The film is shot with vibrant candy colors and has an anything-goes aesthetic: breaking the fourth wall, cartoonish special effects, literal cartoon sequences, broad characterizations, the works. Anyone who saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will know what I'm talking about. It's the kind of thing that Japanese audiences probably wouldn't find unusual at all.

Still, it's not totally outside the Western experience. As I watched it, I thought that if John Hughes were Japanese, this might be the kind of film he'd make. Momoko, the protagonist, is at times suggestive of the heroines of Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, in terms of how she relates to the world around her. The difference is that she has less angst. Her friendship with Ichiko starts off kinda weird, but evolves into something genuine over the course of the story.

The second half of the movie kinda lost me, though, with all this stuff about Ichiko and her bike gang and some person who may or may not exist that they're looking for. Ultimately I have to conclude that while it has its moments, it's not for me, though I can see how young women on both sides of the Pacific would go for it. Maybe it's a gender thing.