Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

First of all, I should say that I didn't get a lot of sleep the previous night. Andrea and I were up late playing Scrabble on Facebook and I guess I just lost track of time - not that I regret it. She's taking a long European vacation this summer, so I feel the need to get as much of her as I can before she goes. I can't help but be worried as to whether she'll be alright, but it's a trip she's been wanting to take for years. It's the fulfillment of a dream for her, and it'll make her happy. Hard to argue with that.

Also, the timing was slightly awkward. Vija, as I've mentioned, has a sideline as a painter, and a few years ago she started what I jokingly refer to as a "support group" for other artists. It's basically an excuse for several of her artist pals to get together for a museum outing or to talk about current projects or what have you. (Perhaps one day I'll go into more detail about it.) Tuesday was to be the date for our next get-together, at a cafe on Fifth Avenue, and I told her I'd probably be late, if I made it at all, because I was gonna go see The Tree of Life. (Tuesdays are discount admission days at the Kew Gardens.) I hated the way that sounded - as if I'd rather see a movie than hang out with pals - but I did tell her I'd hurry back into the city if there was time.

I did make it back into Manhattan, but when I got to the cafe, Vija was the only one of us there. Turned out she got a few last-minute cancellations, something that almost never happens. So it was just the two of us, which suited me fine. We had already had a nice long conversation last Saturday, when I called her from Coney Island, but seeing her was even better. She's currently engaged in a big project where she's painting a bunch of portraits of famous women in history, and she's a little more than halfway done, although it's taking longer than she originally suspected. 

Her work is generally realist but she's been known to switch styles from time to time. For instance, she went through a phase recently where she was painting black-and-white abstract images of animals, yet it was still somewhat recognizable as her work, if you knew what to look for. I've known her so long that I can pick her work out of a lineup fairly easily. She's been doing some commissioned work in recent years too.

So I finally saw Tree. The Kew Gardens didn't show it in their main auditorium, which was a disappointment not only to me, but to the guy in front of me on line. He specifically asked whether or not Tree was playing in Theater 3, the big one. Maybe it did when the Kew first got it, because at the time, the showtimes on the website had hourly showings, so it was likely playing on more than one screen. Now though, it's only on one screen, in one of the smaller theaters, and Midnight in Paris is in Theater 3.

A lot of old-timers came to this screening. When I saw how many there were, my first thought was of the recent story about the Connecticut theater that had to defend Tree from patrons who didn't understand it. How many of these people with me now were familiar with Terence Malick? Were they aware how unconventional this movie is? I know I shouldn't assume that they were incapable of grasping an art movie simply because they're old, and I wouldn't have if there weren't so many of them. It took me a bit by surprise, but then, the Kew does tend to draw an older crowd in general - although there were a couple of cute younger chicks that sat behind me. I think one of them had a cellphone that vibrated loudly, though it didn't ring.

Wouldn't you know it - during the movie I could hear the oldsters across from me muttering every so often. They had to be shushed just as the whole "birth of the universe" sequence began, and after that, their running commentary was limited to the occasional stray remark. For instance, there's a scene where Jessica Chastain wakes up her kids with ice cubes down their backs, and one of the oldsters laughed and said "That's one way to wake somebody up!"

Recently I wondered whether "boring" movies had any value, and I used Tree as a basis for conversation - and now that I've seen it, I think I can guarantee that you'll not see another movie as boring as this all year. I also said that I didn't believe Malick was being deliberately obtuse with this movie, and I still believe it. Whatever else Tree may be, it's definitely made with craft and skill and a deep intellect, and I found myself admiring the craft of the movie more than the story, such as it is. In that respect, I believe Tree has value.

I get the impression that Malick is attempting to ponder the Big Questions with this movie, such as why do bad things happen to good people, but I didn't care enough about the characters to ponder along with him. I got that Sean Penn's character as an adult was looking back on his childhood and perhaps feeling some regret over his adolescent rebellion against his father or sorrow over the loss of his brother, but what about his life as an adult made him want to do this? His character as an adult is a complete cipher; he barely even has any dialogue. If this had been a simple coming-of-age story, that might have been different, but the churning planets and exploding stars and dinosaurs make it all seem more important than it actually is, because ultimately, I don't see what's so special about this family, given when and where they live.

Near the finish, I was slumped deep in my seat and no longer cared if the oldsters were still muttering. I just wanted the movie to end. I couldn't tell how the oldsters felt about it. They seemed contemplative, but not as bewildered as I'd perhaps imagined. When I left the theater, my mind was already on seeing Vija again. At the least, I'd have stuff to tell her about.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WSW presents the My Hometown Blogathon!

So all of these blog-a-thons that I've taken part in have inspired me to finally start one of my own. I've gone through several different ideas to get to this one, and I think it's one you'll like too. It's real simple: write about a movie, old or new, that takes place in your hometown, whether it's the place you were born in or the place you live in now. If there is no movie about your hometown, you can pick a movie about your home state, province, or even country. If you live near a big city that has been in the movies, you can claim that big city as your hometown for the sake of this blog-a-thon provided you've actually been there at least once.

As you write about the movie, I'd like you to also write about where you were born. Let us see it through your eyes: special places from your childhood, important landmarks, the history of the place, friends and neighbors, whatever you want. How do you feel about the place? Maybe it evokes sentimental feelings for you. Maybe you miss it and want to return someday. Maybe you hate it and can't wait to leave - or you never wanna go back! Also, how much does the movie get right and wrong about your hometown? Is it set on a cheap Hollywood backlot or is it on location? Or do they substitute a different city and pass it off as yours?

The week of the My Hometown Blogathon will be July 18-23. You can write your post(s) anytime from now through the week of the event itself. When you finish, send me a link to it (ratzo318 "at" yahoo "dot" com), and on July 23, I'll post the master list of posts. Any questions, feel free to ask. In the meantime, here are your banners:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The Queer Film Blogathon is a month-long event celebrating gay cinema presented by the site Garbo Laughs. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up June 27, 2011.

seen @ Rock and Roll Summer, Coney Island Museum, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY

Two years ago, the state legislature here in New York voted to deny gays the right to legally marry. It was a bit of a shock, to say the least. New York has been a left-leaning state for a long time, going at least as far back as the days of FDR. In the spring of 2004, when President Bush threatened to make a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, there were two places in America that defiantly married gays illegally. San Francisco was one (I happened to be there when it happened). The other was a small college town in New York called New Paltz. I never believed New York State was so provincial that it would fall victim to the fear and ignorance that has kept gays from being recognized as equal under the law - but it happened.

It inspired me to write the state senator from my district, wanting answers. I had never done something like that before, but I felt it was necessary to let her know how I felt. Imagine my surprise when, a week or so later, she called me! I was on a bus when it happened; I had to get off to be sure I was giving her my full attention. She said the reason she responded to me personally was because I was the only one who treated her with respect. Apparently she had gotten a whole lot of angry letters and e-mails calling her names. She never gave me a direct answer as to why she voted the way she did, but she left me with the impression that we would talk again. She never did call me back - though she did try to friend me on Facebook!

This past Friday, the state legislature corrected their mistake from two years ago and finally agreed to permit gay marriage. I was pleased to discover that my senator changed her mind and voted in favor of it.

Given this momentous news, I was surprised that there weren't more people to come watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Coney Island Museum on Saturday. The movie was part of a summer long series celebrating rock-themed movies. As many times as I've been to Coney, I had never been to the Museum before. Coney, of course, has a long and proud history of counter-culture amusements, including burlesque, in addition to being home to the well-known and loved amusement park and boardwalk.

The first time I remember going to Coney was back in high school with friends. We went on the rides, of course, but what I always loved about the place was the arcades. I've talked before about my love of arcades growing up, and the ones at Coney were among my favorites. So I was quite disappointed on Saturday to see that they were almost completely gone. Oh sure, the midway is still around, where you can play all sorts of silly carnival-type games and win a stuffed doll for your troubles, but I always preferred the video games. And they had tons of them, in rooms all over the midway. I can't imagine why they'd want to get rid of them.

As for the rides, well, the Cyclone roller coaster is still around, though I have to admit that it's gotten a bit harder for me to fit into the relatively small cars. The Cyclone is a cherished landmark and I wouldn't want it to go away, but maybe it could stand a few upgrades here and there. Over the past couple of years, newer rides have been installed, and I could not believe how exciting some of them look. There's one that I saw for the first time Saturday that's called "Sling Shot" - it's a two-seated bubble tethered to two cables attached to two tall spires, and after they strap you into it, it shoots up from off the ground and waaaaaay up into the air at a ridiculous speed and bounces up and down for a bit before settling back down to earth. It kinda looks like the sort of stress-test that NASA puts astronauts through.

It's also $20 to ride. Yeah, did I mention that these new rides are expensive as hell? The Sling Shot is part of a new section of the amusement park that operates on a system where you have to buy a card and put credits on it, and the rides are priced in credits instead of tickets. It's a dollar per credit, but they offer discount deals the more credits you buy. Nothing's cheap anymore.

I think in some ways, I prefer the boardwalk anyway. In the summertime, the air is so festive along the boardwalk. There are areas where people gather to dance to Latino dance music. You can buy a Nathan's hot dog, or maybe a hamburger or ice cream, and stroll either east, towards the Aquarium, or west, towards the abandoned parachute drop ride and the minor league ballpark (yes, we have minor league baseball teams in the NYC area, several of them). Last summer I came down here with Andrea and we walked all the way to the western end of the boardwalk and beyond, and discovered a few things - but that's a story for another day.

Getting back to the movie, though: I had seen Hedwig once before, when it first came out. I met my first transgender person a couple of years after the movie. Her name is Gina. She's a woman now, but she was born a guy. She had made an autobiographical comic book about her life, which I came across when I was still writing about comics, and I knew in an instant that I had to write about her. So I contacted her, e-mailed some questions which she answered, wrote the whole thing up and that was that. 

A year later, I had the pleasure of meeting her at a comics convention in San Francisco. Through her work, I gained a measure of understanding about what she experienced psychologically as well as physically in her transition from male to female - not that I could ever have a hope in hell of fully understanding it. But she approached it with candor as well as lots of humor. Beyond her cartoon avatar, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect looks-wise - it's not like I had any experience with transgender people prior to this - but she looked entirely female, and was a sweet, lovely woman. Unfortunately, she doesn't do comics anymore, but she does do animation and sculpture.

Hedwig was shown in a low-ceiling room on the second floor of the Coney Island Museum. There were only about ten or so people which, as I said, was a surprise. The screen was at one end of the room, above a small stage, and the projector faced it in the center. As I came in, they were playing a bunch of old-time in-theater commercials from what looked like the 50s and 60s. Hard wooden chairs were arranged in several rows. The room had a bunch of exhibits; old photographs and artifacts from Coney's history. There were a bunch of stuffed animals that I think were meant to be "freaks." There was even a row of fun-house mirrors that I played around with. Before the show began, some dude came out to introduce Hedwig and talk about it. Hedwig was originally a theater show, of course, which played in a theater that used to be a transient hotel. When it moved to LA, David Bowie became a producer.

Can I say that John Cameron Mitchell makes for a pretty good-looking chick? Not so much when he's all glammed up on-stage but in the quieter scenes. While the movie still has the feel of a stage performance, it's okay because the songs are so awesome and JCM gives an amazing performance. You'd never guess that he'd go from directing this to something as somber and serious as Rabbit Hole.

There's a lot about gay culture I still don't get and probably never will. But when I think of my gay friends - whether mere acquaintances or close pals - I dwell less on the things that make us different and more on the things we have in common. This victory for gay rights here in New York is a major one, and there's still more work that needs to be done all over the rest of this country, but as I walked through Manhattan yesterday, seeing rainbow flags and "equal" flags everywhere as a result of the Pride Parade, I felt, if only for a moment, like homosexuality has become more accepted than ever before, that the fear and ignorance has dissipated, if not disappeared completely. And that the dream of true equal rights, for everyone, is closer than ever before.

Previously in the Queer Film Blogathon:
The Children's Hour
Paris is Burning
La Cage Aux Folles

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Frank Sinatra

Kinda spoiled for choice here. He sang so many great songs from so many memorable movies. But how about these three:

"You're Awful" (with Betty Garrett) from On The Town

"Someone to Watch Over Me" from Young at Heart

"The Lady is a Tramp" from Pal Joey

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Adventures of Ford Fairlane

"The King of Pain" is a blogathon hosted by the site The Dark of the Matinee. The goal is to watch a bad movie from a friend or family member's DVD collection. The complete list of participating blogs will go up June 28 at the host site.

The Adventures of Ford Fairlane
from Reid's DVD collection

Of course I remember Andrew Dice Clay. I didn't think much of him during the peak of his popularity, such as it was. I preferred Sam Kinison. (What can I say? I was a dumb teenager who didn't know better.) I have no doubt that stand-up comedy is one of the toughest acts anyone can do, and it probably does make it somewhat easier if one can adopt an on-stage persona that makes one identifiable. But when your schtick consists of acting like a wanna-be John Travolta making juvenile sex jokes, how far can you really go with that? Actually, in watching The Adventures of Ford Fairlane last night, ADC did remind me in places of another, better stand-up comic: Rodney Dangerfield. Maybe it was all the mugging for the camera and the exaggerated gestures. Of course, in ADC's case, that's all part of his Guido look.

Terry told me once about the Guidos she grew up around, and according to her, the stereotypes are true: over-exaggerated sense of manhood, tacky fashion sense, love of cars and of cruising in them, questionable treatment of women. It's one thing to see them in a movie or TV show; quite another to be around them, I'd imagine, which is why my first-hand experience with them is limited.

Here in New York we have a radio deejay named Joe Causi who has a similar schtick, but the big difference is that you want to hang out with him and party with him, because he still comes across as a down-to-earth guy and not as God's gift to humanity. ADC probably would have no use for him, though, since he plays disco oldies as well as rock oldies. A major theme in Fairlane is the need for True Rock to stay alive in the face of glitzy, soulless pop. Ed O'Neill's character, for instance, is a former disco singer turned cop, so he's a natural nemesis to ADC's "rock and roll detective." We know Ford's a rock and roll detective because we're constantly reminded of it by every other character Ford comes into contact with.

Fairlane is a piece of crap, make no mistake: it has pretensions of being a modern Sam Spade-type crime movie crossed with Beverly Hills Cop, but fails utterly at both. Its awfulness is more "stoopid" than plain bad, however - it wants to be genuinely entertaining, but has no idea how, so it settles for simple goofiness, like the class clown trying to get attention by making silly faces and impressions. It may get a few laughs at first, but it wears mighty thin before long. As a result, my level of contempt for it is not that deep, despite the presence of Gilbert Gottfried (who, thankfully, dies fairly early in the movie). Still, I would not watch this again.

Fairlane is from Reid's DVD collection, which he says is over 500 strong. He kept insisting that not only did he have worse movies than this, but that I wouldn't hate it as much as I thought I would. Normally our taste in movies is somewhat compatible, but I think he has a tendency to go down roads that I wouldn't, movie-wise. This is certainly one of them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Super 8

Super 8
seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream NY


A few years ago, the world learned the story of the group of Mississippi kids who spent years filming a homemade remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had the privilege of seeing it at the Anthology Film Archives. I cannot begin to imagine the level of dedication necessary for a group of kids to accomplish something like this, especially when you consider that this was made long before modern technology would've made it much easier (to say nothing of the devotion to the original film itself). 

It's a level of fandom that often gets mocked - or at least used to - but now that geeks have transcended their stereotypes and become fashionable, it has received a great deal more respect, as it should. I still find it amazing to consider that, culturally speaking, the geeks have won. The ubiquity of geekdom is something I've touched on before, but it's important to remember that this is a relatively recent phenomena. Those of us of a certain generation likely still remember what it felt like to be mocked for liking things like monster movies or model kit making...

... like the kids in Super 8. Joe and Charles and friends are presented as a clique unto themselves; we don't see them with other school kids, though whether that's a result of ostracism isn't clear. Their zombie movie-making hobby is looked down upon by adults and older siblings, but this isn't a significant plot point. By looking at their dedication to their craft, it's easy to imagine them growing up to become professional filmmakers. I love how Charles takes unexpected occurrences and incorporates them into his film, such as the train heading towards the station that kick-starts Super 8's plot.

Much has been written of how director JJ Abrams conceived of Super 8 as a tribute to the plucky-kids-in-peril movies from the 80s. For most of the movie, it's very much in that tradition, although Abrams' penchant for excess is once again on full display here. Then comes the climax and rather abrupt ending. What was that? The alien's been on a rampage throughout the town, it's got the kids trapped in an underground cavern, it's about to eat Joe or whatever, and then... I dunno. I get that Joe misses his recently dead mother, and that the alien made some kind of empathic connection with him because of that, but how was that enough for the alien to suddenly stop his rampage, create a new spaceship and skedaddle just like that? It happened so quick and ended so suddenly, I couldn't believe it - and it ruined what was shaping up to be a decent movie to that point.

Is it time to admit that the emperor has no clothes? Abrams is no M. Night Shyamalan, but he's not the genius auteur everyone makes him out to be, either. Just as people were willing to overlook Star Trek's flaws, I get the same feeling here, because his films hit you at an emotional, gut level that's hard to ignore. He's excellent at developing characters and putting them in stressful situations, and because you grow to care about them, you want to root for them. But his third acts fall apart from the weight of all that excess I mentioned earlier. Just as Star Trek was two-thirds of an entertaining film, so Super 8 was three-quarters of an entertaining film, which I suppose is an improvement.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

AMPAS to play roulette with Oscar Best Pic field

...In the age of reality TV where people are much more invested in the outcome of American Idol than they will ever be in the Oscar race, the AMPAS is still lagging woefully behind the times. Their majority is a cloistered, pampered, out of touch group who look at the screeners in front of them and simply pick what they “liked” best. They aren’t all that different from the American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance public — except that at least with those shows? There are judges who [are] kind of shaping public opinion, trying to educate the audience on what a good singer is, what a good dancer is. With the AMPAS there is no discussion. There is merely an anonymous vote by people who do not seem to care about what defines a best picture.
So the big news last week involved the Academy's decision to shift to a new Oscar voting system in which anywhere from five to ten movies can get nominated for Best Picture. The more I think about it, the more honest this seems. No longer will the Academy have to struggle to come up with ten Best Picture candidates - which they probably do, if it's a challenge to get them to sit down in front of a bunch of screeners to begin with.

What bothers me about this is the fact that the Academy still feels the need to tinker with what should be a simple process. And why? Because fewer people seem to care about the Oscar show itself - and why should they? Long weeks of precursor awards drain all the suspense out of the Oscars themselves (who didn't think that Colin Firth was gonna win Best Actor after all the other awards he racked up?), the show itself contains too much canned material and almost never allows for a flicker of spontaneity, and recent attempts to appeal to a younger, hipper demographic have floundered miserably.

Making the Oscars more like the Tonys isn't a bad idea, if people could get past the notion that the Oscar show is a Sacred Institution that must not be tampered with too much. I do not watch American Idol or any of those competition reality shows (and never will), but even I can't deny the astonishing impact shows like that have had within the past decade or so. It seems to me that if the Academy wants the Oscar show to be meaningful again, they should perhaps look at what those shows are doing.

No, the Oscars are not a true indicator of quality, regrettably, but as long as the prestige and honor that comes from winning an Oscar remains, people will still care about it one way or another.


Monday, June 20, 2011

La Cage Aux Folles

The Queer Film Blogathon is a month-long event celebrating gay cinema presented by the site Garbo Laughs. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up June 27, 2011.

seen online via YouTube

Being black, one usually doesn't have the luxury of being able to hide what one is to avoid racism. Some can and have, of course, by virtue of having light enough skin and Caucasian-like features to "pass" for white, and that has been going on for generations. For most of us, however, having darker skin - and being judged for it, one way or another - is an inescapable fact of life.

Some of the ball contestants of Paris is Burning dress not in elaborate and fancy gowns, but in everyday outfits such as three-piece suits, schoolwear, and military uniforms. The point the subjects of the documentary made about this aspect is how being able to dress this way - to be able to pass for straight - proves to the rest of the world that gays are just as good as everyone else. It was taken as a point of pride that gays were capable of playing the game of passing, not just as a survival tactic but as a way of sticking it to the straight world, in a way.

This actually jibes with what I read in The Mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk's biography. One section talked about how in the 70s, you would see gay men, in San Francisco and elsewhere, dressing like everyday people, almost aggressively, as a way of playing the game, to be more masculine than straight men. And I suppose it explains why the Village People dressed the way they did (even though most of them weren't actually gay!).

When I knew him, Bill would dress all in black all the time. Sometimes he'd wear a bandana over his balding head. Granted, I only knew him from a work perspective; I don't know what he'd wear on his own time, but there's nothing hyper-masculine about a black button-down shirt and black jeans. Plus, he was at least in his 40s, so he might have been more flamboyant when he was younger. The way he would talk about his younger years, it's entirely possible.

Milk, of course, didn't want any gays to hide what they are, something he was militant about. As straights, we may not always understand the culture that gays thrive in. We may find it uncomfortable or even threatening sometimes. I'm reminded of the great Joe Jackson song "Real Men," in which the protagonist's masculinity is questioned by the presence of gay men who seem more virile than himself. Perhaps this lies at the heart of so much homophobia.

La Cage Aux Folles deals with this issue in a quite funny manner, of course, but what elevates this material above mere farce is how the protagonists deal with the feelings of guilt and shame that arise when they face a situation that requires them to hide. Of course it would hurt to be told by your lover that you can't be what you are, even if it's for the best of intentions, even if it's only temporary. The movie doesn't really provide as strong a sense of closure on Renato and Albin's relationship as it should, but I suppose we can only assume that any lingering hard feelings between the two got worked out fine - after all, they made two sequels!

(As a postscript: one of the first videos I remember being a big renter when I started working at Third Avenue was The Birdcage. It used to be that we'd have to play new releases during evening hours [a rule that was later relaxed], so I remember seeing this a lot because we had a ton of VHS copies of it. I didn't think it was all that funny and if I recall correctly, neither did Bill.)

Previously in the Queer Film Blogathon:

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Shining

This is Deadly Daddies Week! All this week we'll look at some of the nastiest, meanest and downright scariest fathers to cross the silver screen.

The Shining 

I don't doubt that Stephen King is a talented writer, but I've never been very inclined to read most of his books. Can't say why for sure. Could be my heavily ingrained inclination to resist anything that's sickeningly, overwhelmingly popular, regardless of quality (the reason why I've never gone near Harry Potter). The only one of his books I own is, surprisingly, one of the few books of his that still hasn't been made into a movie: Rose Madder, a fantasy/horror story about a battered wife on the run from her abusive husband. Jenny was the one who recommended it to me; she said she couldn't believe a man wrote it - this coming from a militant feminist. (If it ever does get made into a movie, I would cast Nic Cage and Amy Adams.)

Many of the movies based on King's stories have entertained me, but I think his non-horror stories might be my favorites: Stand By Me, The Green Mile (more fantasy than horror), The Shawshank Redemption, and especially Dolores Claiborne (I'll have to do a post about that one sometime) appeal to me a little bit more than his horror stories. I've never been big on horror to begin with - another reason why I've never gravitated to his books.

Using Rose Madder as a judge, King's motifs aren't too hard to spot: he loves pop culture references, he has a propensity for imaginary characters speaking to people (especially the crazy and /or "special" ones), he never met a simile he didn't like, and his villains are irredeemably, unmistakably, capital-E Evil.

Which brings us to The Shining. A thought occurs to me as I write this: were the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel what turned Jack Nicholson's character evil, or did it merely bring out the evil within him? Given Nicholson's proclivity towards manic, disturbed, or just plain crazy characters, it's tempting to go with the latter, but let's not forget that director Stanley Kubrick departed from King's book significantly. Still, given what little I know about King's writing, I'm inclined to think that Jack Torrance was Bad All Along.

Do horror books have a leg up on film and TV? It's a non-visual medium; your imagination works harder than it would in film and TV - and often, the scariest things aren't always what we see, but what we don't see. I would not presume to give a definite answer either way, since my knowledge on the subject is limited, but my personal bias favors books, 'cause that's just how I roll.

Previously on Deadly Daddies Week:
The Attic
The Stepfather

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hamlet (1948)

This is Deadly Daddies Week! All this week we'll look at some of the nastiest, meanest and downright scariest fathers to cross the silver screen.

Hamlet (1948)
seen online via YouTube

In my acting class in college, I played a scene from Hamlet once. Don't ask me what act and scene it was specifically, but it was the one in which Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius thinking that he's his stepfather Claudius, and gives his mother Gertrude an earful. I've talked before about how I approached that scene, but one thing I never mentioned is the obstacle of William Shakespeare's language. Yes, it definitely helps if you have one of those Shakespeare books that have footnotes on one side which explain certain words and phrases, but if you read and watch enough Shakespeare, you can get a rudimentary sense of the language. It's a barrier for a lot of people, I know, and it's not easy to get past, but if even I could figure out enough to be able to play the scene, anybody can. (Not that that makes me any kind of authority - I still have difficulty grokking a Shakespeare play a lot of the time.)

As I saw the same scene played out in the Laurence Olivier version, I thought about my approach to it, all those years ago. Unlike me, Olivier didn't feel the need to go for the home run, emotionally speaking, but then for him this was one more scene out of an entire play he was performing (and directing). Then again, perhaps the fact that he was making a movie and not a live performance made a difference. Someone like him surely knew that different media had to be approached differently. Regardless, he at least had a better Gertrude to work with than I did!

I'd always thought of Olivier as this larger-than-life figure that was cold and remote and very properly British. Then again, maybe I associated him too much with his role in Rebecca, a favorite old movie of mine. You have to admit, though, his legend does precede him to a certain degree. His very name is practically a metaphor for acting brilliance, but it's acting of another generation: the crisp enunciation, the mannered way of speaking, the bold gestures - it's all very theatrical, but it's not the kind of acting we're used to seeing today. Brando and DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman set a new standard, at least in America, and Olivier doesn't loom quite as large anymore, I think. Not that it makes him any less great to watch.

Back to Hamlet, though. Everyone knows the story, but I wanna talk about the character Claudius, who secretly kills Hamlet's dad, marries his mom and assumes the throne of Denmark. (Claudius is played here by Basil Sydney, who I've never heard of.) After the play Hamlet arranged that's meant to implicate Claudius as the killer, Claudius seems repentant for a moment afterward, and even prays, and Hamlet, like a schmuck, not only doesn't kill him, he doesn't even try talking to him. 

For the villain of the piece, we really don't get deep enough inside his head. It seems to be taken as a given that Claudius did what he did out of ambition, but I'm not entirely certain about that. Was it even the throne that he was after? Maybe it was Gertrude? How did Claudius really feel about his brother? Maybe he thought he was doing a crappy job of running things. If he was able to feel regret over what he had done, that makes me think there might be more to the story besides a simple murder - and not just a murder, but a coup d'etat. But Hamlet doesn't even try to find out, which is odd when it seems as if what he wanted out of the gambit with the play was a public confession from Claudius. 

Plus, as the rightful (and only) heir to the throne, Hamlet should've considered it his responsibility to, at the very least, expose Claudius publicly as the usurper if he was that opposed to killing him. The play doesn't make a big deal about this aspect of Hamlet's dilemma, and looking at it again now, I think that was a mistake. Someone - Horatio, Polonius, anybody - should've reminded Hamlet of his duty to the kingdom and to stop being such a wuss!

Previously on Deadly Daddies Week:
The Attic
The Stepfather

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Stepfather (1987)

This is Deadly Daddies Week! All this week we'll look at some of the nastiest, meanest and downright scariest fathers to cross the silver screen.

The Stepfather (1987)
seen online via YouTube

I don't want to be a father. I've given this a great deal of thought over the years. There have been moments when I thought it might be nice - like maybe helping to shape a new life into something greater than myself would be a worthy goal somehow... especially if it also meant having a wife that I loved and was devoted to. But I'm convinced that parenthood is not for me, and never will be. I've given my reasons why before.

I've recently discovered a blog called STFU Parents, that collects submissions of Facebook and Twitter messages from overzealous parents who take parenting a bit too seriously sometimes. Becoming a parent changes your life, of course, and for many people it's a profound and humbling experience, no doubt, but does it really turn you into a self-entitled prick who thinks their children can do no wrong? I sure as hell don't wanna become that.

Over the past thirty years or so, thanks to the gay civil rights struggle, we've seen the definition of family become redefined. The traditional 1950s-style nuclear family unit no longer has to be the ideal anymore - especially when you consider the divorce rate. Yet so many people feel threatened by this movement, as if their own families will somehow magically become invalidated if two gay people get married. I've never understood that kind of thinking and I doubt I ever will.

The entertaining, but otherwise cliche film The Stepfather uses this as the motivation for Terry O'Quinn's titular character, but I thought the movie didn't run far enough with it. I like the scene where O'Quinn, who plays a realtor, discusses a house with who he thinks is a prospective buyer. They get into a discussion of family. The potential buyer says he's a bachelor, which gets O'Quinn going on a spiel about the importance of family. The other guy says, "Are you not gonna sell me this house because I'm a bachelor?" The scene goes in a completely different direction after that, but I wish there had been more scenes like this, where O'Quinn really pushes his attitude onto people. I can't help but wonder if the 2009 remake heightens that contrast between traditional nuclear families and modern ones (I doubt it).

I don't want this to seem as if I'm opposed to nuclear families; I'm not. I grew up in one. I just think that people, especially those in positions of power, who feel the need to dictate to others how they should raise their families are dangerous. Maybe not as much as O'Quinn's psycho-killer character, but dangerous enough.

Previously on Deadly Daddies Week:
The Attic

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The big sleep: Do 'boring' movies have value?

...As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like
 The preceding was the first volley in what has become a back-and-forth discussion on the merit of films that come across, to the average Joe, as "boring." Here's more discussion on the topic. This ties in pretty neatly with the release of Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a movie I was set to see earlier this month but have been hesitant to because of what some have called the slow, ponderous nature of its storytelling.

Now there have been lots of movies that I've seen that I probably wouldn't normally seek out on my own but watched simply because somebody else said they were significant - no matter how dull they may seem at first glance. I imagine many film fans can say the same. I think making the effort to step outside one's comfort zone is important in and of itself, even if one doesn't end up liking the film in the end. One's tastes are one's tastes, and one shouldn't have to apologize for them, even in the face of nose-in-the-air critics.

This debate reminds me a whole lot of my friend and former roommate Max. He and I have greatly differing attitudes on art, but I never realized how different until we lived together. For example, Max is a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. One day I borrowed one of his Vonnegut books to read because I had never read them before and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I didn't make it past the first chapter. I tried a second Vonnegut book, same result. I couldn't understand. Was I just stupid? What was it about his writing that I was not getting? Max insisted that it was okay if I didn't get Vonnegut, but I kept insisting that there must be something wrong with me since he and so many other people love Vonnegut's writing. It took me awhile before I was able to accept that in this matter, my tastes were simply different.

I think a lot of people don't like looking stupid when they admit they don't like a work of art that everyone else loves, especially when it comes across as inaccessible or "boring." In the case of film at least, Hatter says often times you just need to see it again:
...Putting aside the fact that our mindset changes with age, there are dozens of reasons why a person could write off a film due to being in the wrong frame of mind. Hell, sometimes my enjoyment of a film was sullied because I was just in a bad mood that day. Is that the movie's fault? This isn't even counting the whole side-tangent of expectations. Did I initially dislike THE THIN RED LINE because it was a bad film? or did I dislike it because it wasn't SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?

Thanks to people suggesting I circle back, over the years I have reclaimed films I would have otherwise tossed away. In some cases, I've dug even deeper and researched them like philosophical edicts, leading to even further enjoyment.
There is definitely merit in this solution (it's worked for me), but I submit that it is entirely possible that some movies resist multiple viewings by their very nature (I don't feel the need to see something like Eraserhead again in an effort to "get" it, for example - because I know I won't). I don't believe Tree of Life is one of those, which is why I probably will see it after all. I don't believe Malick is trying to be deliberately obtuse, based on everything I've read about this movie, and while my own personal history with his films is not great (I fell asleep on The Thin Red Line), I'm willing to take a chance on this because I believe it's a film that has something to say. 

Do "boring" films have value? I think it depends on your level or receptiveness. If you're the type of moviegoer who would never go near a film like Tree of Life, then nothing I or anyone else says about it will change your mind. But if you are, then don't let anything I or anyone else says about it mess with your head if you don't like it. Does this sound reasonable?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Attic (1980)

This is Deadly Daddies Week! All this week we'll look at some of the nastiest, meanest and downright scariest fathers to cross the silver screen.

The Attic (1980) 
seen online via YouTube

It's always a sad thing when once-great actors from a bygone era are forced to settle for making cheesy B-movies in the twilight of their careers. Look at Ray Milland: forever immortalized as the star of the Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend, not to mention other flicks like Dial M for Murder, The Uninvited and Beau Geste. Maybe he wasn't as huge as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, but he worked consistently throughout Hollywood's Golden Age. Then he switched to television for a long time - no shame in that - but the movie roles he got were no longer quite as prestigious as anything made by Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, to put it mildly.

In The Attic, he plays a wheelchair-bound old man under the care of his daughter, who has been more than a little bit fruit loops since her fiancee mysteriously disappeared on their wedding day. He completely disapproves of her, of course, but the lengths of his issues with her go pretty far. This movie wanted to be a suspense/horror movie in the worst way but fails completely, on account of its unintentional hilarity (don't be fooled by my drama label), and it's kinda sad after awhile to see Milland struggle through it all. When you have to share screen time with a monkey in a diaper (not kidding), unless your name's Clint Eastwood, you know your career has fallen on hard times.

And it's not even like I have any great love for Milland - I just hate to see Golden Age movie stars finish their careers in undistinguished roles. Classic Hollywood films - of which I'm defining as anything from the silent era to roughly the mid-60s - were so dramatically different from those of the modern era, which I define as beginning with Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Language, themes, settings, everything from the Golden Age was restricted not only by technology but by censorship from within Hollywood and without, and yet that era produced so many wonderful movies that we all still cherish. 

So to see actors from that era make the transition to the modern age is sometimes bittersweet for me because a part of me wants to keep them in the past, if that makes any sense. Of course, some of them were able to adjust to modern movies excellently: Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross and William Holden in Network, for example. The Attic, alas, does not reach such heights, but oh, brother, is it funny. From the Debbie Boone-like songs on the soundtrack to the fantasy sequences in which Carrie Snodgress imagines all the ways in which she can kill Milland (the giant killer ape is the best!), this is worth watching for the cheese factor alone. Milland earns his Deadly Daddy status before it's all over, but his fate is sadly anticlimactic.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Julie Andrews

Is there any doubt that one of the greatest singing voices in all of film history belongs to Julie Andrews?

"My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music)

"Feed the Birds" (from Mary Poppins)

"Baby Face" (from Thoroughly Modern Millie

Friday, June 10, 2011

Freeze Frame: The WSW Roundtable

This is the first of what I hope will become a semi-regular feature here. There are all sorts of things going on in the film world that have an impact on the way we think about, watch, and talk about movies, and in a further attempt to gauge this impact, I've recruited some of my fellow film bloggers from The LAMB to have a virtual sit-down and discuss them. The plan is to do this every other month.

Assembled here for your enlightenment an edification are the following:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


last seen online via YouTube

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 Willem Dafoe. The complete list of posts for this month will go up June 25 at the LAMB site.

I am profoundly old-fashioned when it comes to video games. I don't need much at all to entertain me: a simple shoot-em-up, a sports or word game, or a puzzle of some kind, has always been enough for me - not that I haven't experimented. I've played some 21st-century games in recent years: Guitar Hero, several other games with more complex controls than a joystick. I've even tried out the Wii. While I do find the new levels of game technology impressive, to say the least, I also have to admit to a certain level of trepidation as well.

I'm convinced that video games are an art form on the basis of the visuals alone. While it's not quite the same as looking at CGI spaceships on a movie screen, the look of current games combined with the remarkable array of interactivity approaches the level of art as far as I'm concerned. Like painting or sculpture, it's a learned trait combined with a certain amount of innate, intuitive skill. Human minds have to imagine the way Lara Croft moves, interacts with her environment, responds to input from the user. That takes imagination.

At the same time, though, the speed in which game technology is increasing is breathtaking. Can it be possible that games are now comparable with movies in their complexity? I find it impossible to believe - yet is that a result of games getting better or movies getting worse? The implications of that are a little disturbing, at least from the perspective of movies - especially when one considers that Hollywood seems disinclined to make more challenging movies these days.

David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is often compared to The Matrix, which came out the same year and has a few surface similarities, but I think it has more in common with something like David Fincher's The Game, particularly the shifting environments and the is-it-a-game-or-isn't-it head trip. (A number of YouTube commenters also drew comparisons to Inception, which, of course, came afterwards.) The plot suggests that games like eXistenZ - where you plug an organic-looking console into a hole at the base of your spine - are all the rage, but I can't imagine how. The eXistenZ world is not all that exciting, and it seems to substitute atmosphere for depth. Then again, from what I understand of current role-playing games, there are often long stretches of inactivity before something happens - not unlike reality, I suppose.

I can understand wanting to devote long hours at playing these new kinds of games in order to beat it if you're younger and presumably have more time to devote to that sort of thing. I spent many long hours in arcades as a kid, trying to beat my favorite games. Even if you're young, however, I feel like it's too much time to spend on something so frivolous as a game. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but that's how I feel. I'd rather devote all that time to writing or drawing or biking. I guess that's why I prefer my games to be simpler. I no longer feel the need to spend so much time playing a game, no matter how complex.

Okay, so now I gotta say something about Willem Dafoe. Unfortunately, he isn't in eXistenZ much: he appears in one scene as a gas station attendant whom Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law turn to for help, and he briefly appears again at the end. Dafoe is his usual creepy self. His character is not quite what he seems, but then, no one in this movie is. Something about his face - maybe it's his chin, his eyes, that grin of his - that is particularly unsettling, yet there's no doubt that he's a fine actor. Usually he's a supporting guy, but when he takes center stage, he can really shine.

Besides eXistenZ, I've seen Dafoe in Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ, Mississippi Burning, Born on the Fourth of July, Cry-Baby, Wild at Heart, Clear and Present Danger, Basquiat, The English Patient, Affliction, American Psycho, Shadow of the Vampire, Spider-Man 1-3, The Aviator, Inside Man and Antichrist. I'd have to say Shadow of the Vampire is my favorite role of his.

Previously in LAMB Acting School:
Natalie Portman
Gary Oldman

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class
seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream, NY


I was gonna wait until later this month to write about X-Men: First Class; in fact I was gonna pair it with Green Lantern because I figured I used up my "A" material in writing about the first X-Men movie. As it turns out, however, I do have something important to say about this movie - something that can't wait.

First, I should say upfront that this was very well made. Director Matthew Vaughn is the real deal, and seeing this makes me wonder what X-Men: The Last Stand would've been like in his hands. James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender are superb as Xavier and Magneto, respectively, and Vaughn did the right thing in making their relationship the focus of the movie. At one point I found myself thinking that this is what the original movie should've been - not so much in terms of casting, but characterization. And the cameo appearance by you-know-who was AWESOME (and an actual surprise!). Ultimately, though, I was let down in a big way, and here's why.

There are a lot of new characters in First Class, some I recognized from the comics, some I didn't (Nightcrawler has an evil twin brother now?). One new character is a guy named Darwin, played by Edi Gathegi. Don't know anything about him. IMDB says he's from Kenya, he was in the first two Twilight movies and he was even in Atlas Shrugged (god help him). So this movie was definitely a step up.

Darwin's power is to "adapt" to any threat to his survival (get it?). We see him stick his head in a fishtank and grow gills to keep from drowning, for instance. That sounds like a really useful power. I didn't know this character was even going to be in the movie. I'm not one of those fanboys that has to follow every single aspect of movies like this up until opening day. Still, I figure, fine. Didn't give it another thought once he was more or less established. So what happens?

He dies. The only good-guy character to die and OF COURSE IT'S THE TOKEN BLACK GUY. His death makes no sense, either: Kevin Bacon and his minions track down Xavier's new recruits and they try to fight him. One of the new mutants can project energy blasts from his chest in concentric rings, but Bacon's character's power is to absorb energy and project it back, which is exactly what he does. He takes that energy and shoves it down Darwin's throat, which explodes inside him and kills him. If Darwin's power is to take on whatever traits he needs to survive... then why didn't he survive? A power like his should make him impossible to kill. Maybe he gets seriously hurt and it takes him a long time to recuperate, but that didn't happen. And of course, he's forgotten about for the rest of the movie.

I saw it happen and I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that in 2011, Hollywood movies are still using this tired cliche. It took me right out of the movie for a moment and it made me mad. Minorities in general have become even more marginalized in the movies today than ever before, so there's a tendency to want to latch on to them even closer in movies like this because one never knows how long we'll get to see them. Darwin's death is ridiculous because he didn't have to die, and it's insulting because it continues a long and frustrating trend that has been going on for decades.

But wait. Darwin's not the only character of color in the movie. Another new character is a chick named Angel, played by Zoe Kravitz, daughter of singer Lenny Kravitz (and Lisa Bonet). IMDB says she's been in a few things, including Jodie Foster's The Brave One and the TV show Californication. Her character's mutant power is to fly with insect-like wings and to spit globs of energy (ew). She joins Bacon after he gives the new mutants the "Why fight for a world that fears and hates you" speech. Maybe it's a ruse and she'll betray them in the end, I thought. She doesn't. She sticks with Magneto through the rest of the movie.

So let's add it up: two characters of color - one dies and is quickly forgotten, the other is an unrepentant turncoat who has no qualms about fighting her former friends. Great! Thanks, First Class! Thanks a lot.

The irony is that ever since the late 70s, when writer Chris Claremont took over the comic book, the X-Men have been known for their diversity. Mutants from all different parts of the world have been part of the team at one time or another. And as for the original trilogy of films, well, say what you will about Halle Berry as Storm, but she was front and center in all three movies and she mattered.

I can't stress enough how frustrating it feels to have a movie that I was genuinely looking forward to be ruined in this way. And like I said, everything else about First Class was good (except Emma Frost; how can you take such a strong, sophisticated character and turn her into vanilla pudding?). I'll probably be the only person to even bring this up, but if I am, then so be it. I'd rather that Darwin wasn't in the movie at all than to see him disposed of and tossed aside so cavalierly, to join the great big pile of disposable black characters in movies.