Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Thief and the Cobbler

The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled Cut), AKA The Princess and the Cobbler AKA Arabian Knight
seen online via YouTube

There's a wonderful graphic novel called Hicksville, about a tiny New Zealand village which houses a secret archive of comics created by the greatest cartoonists in history. These are the dream projects that they weren't able to publish for a wider audience due to business restraints imposed on them by selfish editors and publishers. Needless to say, it's a hell of a lot more than just superheroes. There's much more to the story than just that, though. It's well worth reading.

I was reminded of the book when I learned of the story behind the film The Thief and the Cobbler, which is also a story of a notable artist's dream project compromised by an indifferent company. Richard Williams is a Canadian animator by way of London, who won Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the 1971 version of A Christmas Carol. He also has an Emmy for the TV film Ziggy's Gift. So basically he's really good at what he does.

Before all of that, though, in 1968, Williams began self-financing work for a project called The Thief and the Cobbler, inspired by the Arabian Nights tales and meant to be a more adult-oriented film. The work went slowly. After Roger Rabbit became a success, he signed a deal with Warner Brothers to finish Thief, but production went on past the deadline. Meanwhile, Disney was about to release the similar Aladdin and, fearing the competition, the financier pulled Thief and had it completed in Korea with new musical segments. Under the title The Princess and the Cobbler, it was released to the international market in 1994.

It gets worse. Miramax, notorious for their practice of re-cutting foreign films and re-distributing them during the Weinstein regime (they don't call Harvey Weinstein "Harvey Scissorhands" for nothing), got their hands on the film, drastically re-wrote, re-cut it and re-released it under the title Arabian Knight a year later.

Fortunately, in 2006, a "director's cut" version was put together by animator Garrett Gilchrist which used Williams' original storyboards and unfinished animation. This "Recobbled Cut" is a patchwork, but it's much closer to Williams' original vision than either of the other two versions, and this is the version I watched on YouTube last night.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like to see your life's work treated so shabbily? I mean, look at the poster and you'll see that Disney's Aladdin owes a great deal to this movie. Zigzag, the villain (voiced by Vincent Price!), is clearly an amalgam of Jafar and the Genie. I've always loved Aladdin, but after seeing Thief, I know I can never look at it the same way again.

Thief is a fun movie, if a bit light story-wise. There are no musical numbers like in Aladdin. The animation style reminded me of the Pink Floyd movie The Wall (the style, NOT the subject matter), with elements of Ralph Bakshi as well. It's kinda trippy, with lots of arabesque design patterns, rubbery figures, and unique visual gags. For instance, the Cobbler is almost always seen with two or three tacks dangling from his mouth (that's his name, in fact, Tack), but the way the tacks are animated suggest an actual mouth.

Despite the strides in the medium within the past twenty years, animation, I think, still gets unfairly categorized in America as being mostly for kids. I've alluded to it before in relation to Toy Story 3 and its Best Picture Oscar run. And then there's the hand-drawn animation versus computer-generated animation debate - if it can still be called one, since the latter has been winning at the box office for quite awhile now. Here's an animated movie that's both adult-oriented and hand-drawn that could've gone a long way towards challenging preconceptions about animated movies, but was not allowed to succeed on its own terms. It's a heartbreaking story, but at the very least, we're able to see what could have been.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


...Movies with such a prestigious pedigree won nearly universal acclaim in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Think of such Oscar-winning films as "Gentleman's Agreement," "All the King's Men," "The Defiant Ones," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "In the Heat of the Night." 

...These once-fashionable message movies came to be derided as earnest, simplistic and sentimental. There's another key word that succinctly defines these earlier critical favorites: middlebrow. The word means "somewhat cultured" or aspiring to intellectual substance without quite reaching the exalted heights. Virginia Woolf defined the middlebrow reader as "betwixt and between," devoted not to art for its own sake but to "money, fame, power, or prestige." In other words, the middlebrow is not quite as smart as the true highbrow and not as spirited as the unpretentious lowbrow. Today's critics wouldn't dream of keeping company with this crowd.

But here are a few other words that might describe the films mocked as middlebrow: ambitious, humanistic, impassioned, moving, hard-hitting. When did all those adjectives turn into dirty words?
When I first read this Los Angeles Times editorial, I took it to mean that certain movies such as The Help were being unfairly pigeonholed as being of lesser quality than they actually are due to critics' preconceptions. But a rebuttal from the same paper seems to suggest otherwise:
...Today is not 50 years ago. The modern world is a thorny, uncertain, rough-and-tumble place (not that it ever hasn't been), and the best films should aim to reflect that with a clear-eyed awareness in their context and perspective and a strong reach for more... The problem is not with the middlebrow in itself — and really, a film such as "Bridesmaids" likely represents the true New Middle more than "The Help" — the problem lies with opting for the obvious and becoming complicit with the incurious. Aiming for the middle is too often an excuse to aim too low.
First of all, let's tell it like it is: what we're talking about here are "awards bait" movies, the kind of films that - intentionally or not - appear to be made specifically to win Oscars and Golden Globes and what have you because they make Hollywood feel good about itself. The term has become a pet peeve of mine because it's the product of a cynical attitude that suggests that movies like these are automatically inferior in some way. To be fair, though, there is some truth to this: The Reader is a much better example of a movie that hit the Academy's sweet spot to a greater degree than more popular, and more critically-acclaimed, films like WALL-E and The Dark Knight, and sure enough, it was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture.

Still, to automatically conclude that The Reader or any movie was made for the sole purpose of winning awards is a step too far. I seriously doubt any filmmaker worthy of the name goes into a film with that mentality.

That said, the original argument is undermined with this passage:
Younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they're hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies -- "The Tree of Life," "Meek's Cutoff," "The Future" -- that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious. These younger reviewers also have a fondness for lowbrow fare -- gross-out comedies like "Superbad" or violent genre pictures like "Bellflower" and "Zombieland." In the past, many gritty crime movies were indeed underrated while highfalutin literary adaptations were overrated. But that battle has been won, and we've swung too far to the opposite extreme.
Why is there this backlash against Meek's Cutoff all of a sudden? I liked it, I do not consider it impenetrable, and I guarantee you I'm not trying to be hip when I say that. Anyway, speaking as someone who spent ten years championing "esoteric" independent comic books before starting this blog, let me say that "esoteric" does not always equal "ponderous." Yeah, there's crap in the art house, just like there's crap in the multiplex, but there's good stuff there too, and isn't finding the good stuff and writing about it kinda the whole point of being a film critic? And if there is disagreement on what's good and what's bad, well, then, the audience will be the ultimate arbiter, as it should be.

Agree? Disagree?


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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Game 6

Game 6
seen online via Hulu

So Hurricane Irene has come and gone and my neighborhood, at least, doesn't seem to be too devastated. The city actually shut down mass transit, and from looking at the pictures of the damage, that was absolutely the right thing to do. I distinctly remember one year in the late 90s, being caught on Broadway in Herald Square as a hurricane blew through Manhattan. Now that was scary - looking around, seeing only scattered people here and there running for shelter, Macy's and all the other stores and restaurants closed in the middle of the day. I'll never forget it. I'll be grateful when the transit system resumes a semblance of normalcy. A lot of people are working hard at making that happen, and as far as I'm concerned, they're heroes. Moving onward...

There's a wonderful Peanuts cartoon in which Linus is watching the finish of an exciting football game, and after it's over he tells Charlie Brown about it. He describes how the home team was losing by only a few points with seconds left, and the quarterback made a brilliant pass or something and the home team scored a touchdown and won the game, and the crowd went delirious and the players started piling on top of each other in the end zone and everyone was dancing and cheering and it was the Greatest Game Ever. Charlie Brown, being Charlie Brown, just looks at Linus and asks, "How did the other team feel?"

As thrilling as the 1986 World Series was for me, the absolute improbability of it - my Mets coming back from within a single strike of losing the series in six games to winning in seven - I can't deny that among the many images from that miraculous sixth game indelibly imprinted on my brain are that of the Red Sox in their dugout, sitting in stunned disbelief, some of them even crying. And if it was that rough for them, imagine how bad it was for their fans, being subjected yet again to another bitter Red Sox defeat that prevented them, again, from winning a Series, something they had not done to that point in almost 70 years.

Anyone who has been a sports fan for any length of time knows the feeling sooner or later - not just defeat, but defeat in a championship game. Missing out on getting in the record books, to become immortal. Mets fans knew the feeling the year before, in 1985, when the division title came down to the final three games of the season against the hated Cardinals and our side came up short. That was a bitter loss, to be sure, but Red Sox fans, for generations, knew loss on a truly epic scale. I would imagine that messes with your head a little bit after awhile.

That feeling is expressed in Game 6, a movie I found on Hulu last week while idly searching through it. I'm surprised I hadn't heard of this movie; had I known about it, I would've gone to see it opening day. Michael Keaton plays Nicky, a playwright and a Red Sox fan, whose new play opens the same night as Game 6 of the '86 Series. He's not conflicted about it, though, at least not at first, because even though the Sox are winning, he's convinced the Sox will lose, because they always find a way to lose. Over the course of the day, however, between worrying about his play and his crumbling marriage and the game, his attitude changes. Keaton is very good, as is the rest of the cast (Robert Downey Jr., Griffin Dunne, Bebe Neuwirth, Catherine O'Hara), but I wasn't completely convinced of the parallels the movie tried to make between baseball and life. And the ending was a little too convenient.

I don't follow baseball as closely as I used to anymore. Personally, I don't think any sense of devotion to a sport can match the sense one has as a child, when all things are new and anything is possible. I've said it here before, but it's absolutely true: the '86 Series was a defining moment in my childhood, for so many reasons: the connection with my father; living where I did, so close to Shea Stadium; dreaming about being a ballplayer; days playing ball in Flushing Meadow Park with my best friend and his younger brothers. I already felt deeply connected with baseball in general and the Mets in particular, and to see them not only go the distance and win, but to win in so dramatic a fashion - the cliche is true; if Game 6 was a screenplay, it'd never get filmed because no one would believe it - it was like an affirmation of everything in my short life that meant anything to me: my family, my friends, my neighborhood.

As for the Red Sox, well, they too, would eventually get a happy ending when they finally broke the curse and won the Series in 2004, in an equally dramatic, equally improbable postseason march. So if baseball teaches us anything, it's that time has a way of evening most things out. (Unless you're the Cubs.)


Eight Men Out

Friday, August 26, 2011

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
first seen @ Arena Grand Theatre, Columbus OH

At the Third Avenue video store, we had a decent sized porn section. It was all the way in the back, to the left of the register as you entered the store. This was in the late 90s, so everything was still VHS. The oversized boxes ('cause size matters, dont'cha know) were hung on pegs on both sides of a tiny little alcove. The bathroom, appropriately enough, was at the end of the little hall (but only we held the key to it; it was not a public bathroom). Gay porn was on one side, straight porn on the other.

For a long time, I admit, I was judgmental about the regular porn customers, of which we had quite a few. I'd never actually say anything to their faces about their selections, but I tended to act colder towards them when it came to checking these tapes out. See, most porn customers aren't likely to ask for their titles by name - though there were plenty that did! - so often times, they'd bring the boxes up to the counter. Since we never had more than one copy of each title, if the box wasn't on display in the porn section, then it was definitely out. Either that, or it was in and we just didn't get around to putting the boxes back yet.

The point is that whenever they brought the boxes up, I'd have to handle them, which I didn't care for. I guess I was more prudish back then. What can I say? I mean, it's fairly obvious what they're taking them out for, and I guess I didn't want to be reminded of that - and if you saw some of the dudes that regularly rented porn, you'd likely agree! And yes, gay porn bothered me more. In my defense, let me say that this was at a time when I was still ignorant about homosexuality in general, although working with Bill opened my eyes to a lot of stuff about it - and later on, in the 2000s, I would meet more gay people. But that was still in the future.

Some of my co-workers would take porn lightly and laugh about it. By the time I got to the Avenue A store in 2003, I could laugh about it too, and much more easily, but not as much while I was at Third Avenue. It wasn't an impediment to my job; I did what I had to do because let's face it, porn was a big money-maker for our little independent video store. Dudes came to us for it because Blockbuster didn't have it; that's one reason why we were unique and popular within our neighborhood. Still, some customers sensed my hostility and occasionally complained to the boss and I'd get crap for it.

If I were to work in a video store with a porn section today, I'd adopt a much more live-and-let-live attitude. I think I can better understand what drives men (and women too, I guess) to watch porn. The sexual urge is a primal one. If it doesn't find release in the usual manner, then it'll manifest in other ways. I'm not saying it's good or bad, it just is.

And besides, porn can be funny as hell! Kevin Smith certainly knows that, as we've seen in many of his other films as well as in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. I saw it opening weekend with my ex-roommate Max and friends while I was living in Columbus. We caught an early show, and if I remember correctly, the four of us were the only ones in the smallish theater. Suited us fine. We still had a good time.

The Arena Grand lies in downtown Columbus, in the Arena District, an area anchored by the Nationwide Arena, home of the Bluejackets hockey team and the premier venue for concerts, conventions, and what have you. Columbus is home to Nationwide Insurance, and the company's influence is felt throughout the city as a major mover and shaker. (The street the arena and theater is on is called Nationwide Boulevard.) When I lived in Columbus, the minor league baseball team, the Clippers, moved to a beautiful new ballpark down the street from the Arena. I went to several games there. I only went to one Bluejackets game, though. As luck would have it, this was the season they went to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history (though they'd get swept in the first round by eventual Cup-winner Detroit).

The rest of the Arena District has a bunch of nice restaurants and a popular concert hall, along with some apartment housing. There was one great Italian joint that Max and I would go to a lot, both with friends or his family.

The Arena District is right on the northernmost edge of the downtown. When I lived in Columbus, the downtown was not as happening a place as it once was. While it has its share of attractions, there was rarely a sense of vitality to it. Basically, people would come there to work in the morning and then leave at day's end for the suburbs. There was a major shopping mall on High Street, the main drag, for many years, but as bigger, fancier malls opened in the suburbs, it couldn't compete. Recently, the city finally tore it down and put up a park in its place. From the pictures I've seen of it, it looks wonderful. I hope to see it in person one day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Der Verlorene

Der Verlorene
seen @ 92 Y Tribeca, New York, NY

I regret to inform you that I have no wacky earthquake story to share. I'm sorry; I wish I did. My experience amounted to little more than this: I was indoors, above ground level, when it happened, I was more confused than scared, and it ended as suddenly as it began. I admit, I've always been a little curious as to what a tremor would feel like, but not that curious! Most importantly, no one I know, either here in New York or in the Virginia/DC area, was hurt. Any day now, I fully expect to start seeing "I survived the East Coast Quake of '11" T-shirts being sold on the street. (I already saw one SoHo bar with a drink offer dubbed an "earthquake special.")

I wouldn't take the subway. I was paranoid enough to stick to the bus for as long as I could, until I had to take a train to get from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I only did it for one stop. Turned out I had nothing to worry about: the subways weren't affected at all by the quake, but I guess I didn't quite believe it. So that's all I have to say about the quake. No getting caught sitting on the toilet or anything like that.

Nick is a fella I worked with at the Avenue A video store years ago. We were friendly, but to be honest, I didn't know him all that well, so I can't tell you a great deal about him. I found him on Facebook recently through a mutual friend and I friended him, and that's how I found out about an event he was part of.

Most of the YMCA branches here in New York offer the usual stuff: workout space, living quarters, summer camp for kids, etc. The 92nd Street Y is different. They also hold a wide range of major events -"major" as in attracting well-known celebrities from TV, film, music, and elsewhere. They offer concerts, lectures, children's activities, and much more. In addition to the uptown location, there's a second one downtown, in Tribeca, and that's where Nick and his partner hosts a regular series of film screenings called the Overdue Film Series.

Last night, they presented a couple of old films directed by established actors. The second one, which I didn't stay for, was a Robert Montgomery film called Ride the Pink Horse. But the first one was a German film called Der Verlorene ("The Lost One" in English), the one and only film directed by Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon star Peter Lorre.

I'm afraid I can't say much about this film because the subtitles were difficult to read. They were white, and far too often they'd vanish when projected against a light area. Here's the one sentence that describes the movie's plot at IMDB: "German scientist murders his fiancée during World War II when he learns that she has been selling the results of his secret research to the enemy." That sounds about right, but like I said, the bright subtitles made it difficult to follow, and the film itself felt slow and tedious, and after awhile, I stopped caring (though the ending is a bit of a shock). From the way he talked about it in introducing the film, Nick seemed really interested in it, so if you're reading this, Nick, I'm sorry I don't have anything better to say. For what it's worth, the movie drew a fair-sized crowd for an obscure old foreign film. The small screening room at the 92 Y Tribeca must have held 30-35 people last night.

I certainly won't hold this one movie against Nick, though. He said that next month they'd show a couple of Charles Grodin comedies, so I'm sure they do their best to offer as diverse a selection as they can.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Classic movies in their proper context

...The only moment of audience reaction that really bothered me came from a couple of women sitting behind me, who were older than me, and bust out in guffaws when Lionel Barrymore described a hurricane that devastated the Keys. The gangsters are nervous about the approaching hurricane at this point in the film, and they ask him how bad the storm could get. Lionel describes trains wrecked and bodies tossed out to sea, and for weeks afterwards corpses drifting into the mangrove swamps. These ladies thought that was an absolute hoot. I admit, I was ready to turn around [and] belt them. It ruined an otherwise intense moment in the film.

Then I realized that because Lionel Barrymore holds the whip hand in this scene, they probably thought he was making it up, telling tales to scare the bad guys, since it was the only power he, an older, frail, wheelchair-bound man, had over them. It makes sense, and if that were really the case, then I agree the scene would be funny.
Except the hurricane he describes really happened.
Classic movie fans will no doubt recognize this as a scene from the great movie Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It's one of my all-time favorite movies for sure; I've seen it many times and have always enjoyed it. I never thought that this scene was funny at all, but I've certainly seen enough old movies with an audience to be in a situation like this. Sometimes I'm the one who laughs at something out of context, sometimes it's other people. It's to be expected when you're watching a film from a different era: things that were generally understood back then lose their meaning over time.

I used to not take it seriously whenever I'd see a classic film blogger complain about it, but not anymore. I can see how it'd be a little annoying. Reading this, however, kinda re-emphasized for me how beneficial it can be to understand the context behind an old movie - not always, but certainly whenever there's any confusion.

You ever have that happen when watching an old movie? Whichever side you may have been on, that is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rachel, Rachel

Rachel, Rachel
seen online via YouTube

When you talk about the great Hollywood romances, few get any better than that of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In an industry where affairs come and go like ships in the night, it seems, these two stayed together for fifty years while being at the top of their game. They were married in 1958 after having met six years earlier on the set of the Broadway play Picnic. Newman was married at the time, however, and by the time he got a divorce he had fathered three children by his ex-wife. Though the guilt of his divorce would stay with him, he was much happier with Woodward.

After big roles in successful films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and Cool Hand Luke, Newman, turned to directing, and he made a big splash with his debut, Rachel, Rachel, starring his wife Woodward. He also produced. Based on a book, it's about a small-town schoolteacher going through a midlife crisis, only to find love in the arms of an old friend recently returned - but that brings up other problems as well. It would get four Oscar nominations, including Newman for Director, Woodward for Actress, and Best Picture.

Looking at it now for the first time, it seems like exactly the kind of movie that would be difficult to get distributed by a major studio today. (Rachel is a Warner Brothers film, through their division Seven Arts.) It's a quiet, subtle character study, an adult drama that doesn't rely on gratuitous amounts of sex and violence. If it were made today, it would probably go through the festival circuit (Cannes, Toronto, New York) before getting a limited release in December (the height of the Oscar voting period) through the art house theaters, by a company like Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features, and then slowly expanding in January to capitalize on awards buzz.

I've never seen any of the other films Newman directed, but he does a remarkable job here in his debut. I thought he reminded me in places of Roman Polanski (who would have a huge hit with Rosemary's Baby in the same year) in terms of establishing mood and emotion with his camera placement. He used flashbacks creatively, as well as imaginary sequences where Rachel sees things she wishes would happen but don't. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate came out the year before, and it's easy to imagine groundbreaking movies like those being an influence on Newman. (Indeed, Bonnie and Clyde star Estelle Parsons appears in Rachel.)

This is the first time I've seen Woodward in a starring role (apparently she was in Philadelphia but I don't recall her in it). She was very beautiful in her youth, that much is obvious, and Newman's camera clearly admires her, despite the plain-jane nature of her character. I liked the transitions between the present and the past, where we see young Rachel's relationship with her father. Newman occasionally inter-cuts images from Rachel's past to comment on her present. Woodward's role is not showy, but neither is it completely subtle either. In the scenes with her mother, for instance, one gets the sense of the ambivalence of Rachel's feelings toward her. Rachel feels beholden to her and is tired of it, but she doesn't quite know what to do about it and it frustrates her. Newman got a very strong performance out of Woodward. He was quite a director, even if he didn't make as many films as his pal Robert Redford.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Attack the Block

Attack the Block
seen @ UA Kaufman Studios Cinema 14, Long Island City, Queens, NY

There's a moment late in the movie Attack the Block that stood out for me more than most of the action sequences because of the subtle way it conveyed character. Moses, the leader of the gang of street kids fighting the aliens threatening their apartment complex, tells Sam, the nurse whom he initially mugged but now must rely on for help, to pick up something at his apartment. They communicate by cellphone. To this point, Sam has tried not to be intimidated by this teenage hoodlum, but she definitely doesn't feel completely safe around him and his friends. 

So she's in the bedroom and she sees a blanket with some cartoon character on it. (It was shown kinda quickly, so I could be wrong, but that's what it looked like.) She asks Moses on the phone, "Do you have a little brother?" He says no, and that's when she realizes that this must be his bedroom, and she's clearly surprised that this hard, stoic punk would own something so childish. Sam asks Moses how old he is, and he says he's fifteen. "You look older," Sam replies. "Thanks," Moses says.

I couldn't possibly imagine me and my high school friends defeating an alien invasion. Granted, we weren't a bunch of moped and bike-riding kids armed with katanas and machetes and fireworks - all we had were hacky sacks and frisbees and a handball or two. We might have had a chance depending on the terrain, though. If we had fought them in Central Park, for instance, we'd have had a definite advantage, because that was our turf - at least the southwest portion of it. I'm not sure our hacky sack-kicking skills could translate very well into improvised martial arts techniques, though. We could probably take down one or two of the hairy, glow-in-the-dark-teeth critters from the movie, but an entire army would've killed us dead before we made it to the Sheep Meadow.

I enjoyed Block much more than Super 8 because while it definitely followed in the footsteps of films like ET and The Goonies, it felt much more original. Why should aliens always appear in suburban neighborhoods? Why shouldn't they pop up in the ghetto once in awhile? And because these are ghetto kids, the way they look at these aliens is different, and that difference is acknowledged without having it come across as heavy-handed. For instance, at one point Moses theorizes that the creatures were sent to wipe out people of color in their neighborhood, since "we're not killing ourselves fast enough for them." A poignant observation that rings true to Moses' character, but not one that's constantly harped upon. This movie's not an allegory for racial and social inequity; it's an action movie, and that's what we get.

I hadn't been to the Kaufman in a long time. Much has changed. Once you go past the box office, you enter into a huge lobby with a whole bunch of newfangled video games on opposite ends of the room, along with the requisite movie posters and displays, of course. I was tempted to give one of the games a try, but I didn't have time. I was hungry and I wanted to get something to eat, so I moseyed on over to the concession counter.

The long counter had about eight or nine video screens above and behind it. When I first got there, a couple of them had the menu on display, but the rest had flashy images of some of the combo deals, like a burger with fries and a drink, or a large popcorn with candy and a drink. None of these images displayed the prices, mind you, just the combos. Then after a moment the images would change - and suddenly the menu was gone! All the screens displayed a single graphic, spread out over the multiple screens, advertising something like nachos or candy. If there was a fixed menu somewhere else on the counter that I could refer to (because I had already decided I wanted something other than popcorn; I just didn't know what), that'd be one thing, but there wasn't. The menu would pop in and out, depending on whatever stupid image was cycling on the screens. There was even a crude computer-generated cartoon of some sort of a dude eating popcorn. I'm looking at all of this and wondering how the hell am I supposed to figure out what I want to eat if the menu doesn't stay still long enough for me to decide?

Finally I settled on what looked like chicken fingers with fries. The menu only had one price for it on there, which I mistook to be the combo price. It was the base price. The combo (including a soda) cost several dollars more, way more than I was willing to pay, but I would've known that if I had seen both prices on the menu instead of one. All those razzle-dazzle graphics coming and going on the screens were distracting and highly unnecessary.

So I eventually get my box of chicken fingers and fries. Now judging from what I saw on the screens, I expected the chicken fingers to be about the size of, you know, my finger. As I walked towards the auditoriums, I opened the box - and it turns out they're these little bite-sized things about the size of a dollar coin! I wanted chicken fingers and what I got were tater tots! They tasted good, but still - not what I expected to pay for! If I ever come back to this theater, I'll either sneak food in or eat beforehand!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Help

seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream NY

And now, five things I thought about while watching The Help:

1. The abundance of black nannies in New York. One can't walk to the end of a block in Manhattan without seeing black nannies pushing white babies around in strollers somewhere. Many of them are Caribbean. They tend to congregate at the same places - the playground, the supermarket, the school - in upscale neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. 

Occasionally I've wondered why it is that the only nannies you see here are black ones. They're so ubiquitous that after awhile they almost seem to blend together into the same face. All other things being equal, one would think that there'd be a little more diversity in this field, especially in a city like New York. As it is though, it's nearly impossible to avoid thinking of race and class issues when one sees them so often...

...but those little white children getting pushed around in their strollers don't think about that stuff. They don't understand it. All they know is that this woman who's not Mommy is there for them when Mommy's not (or Daddy, for that matter). What would it be like growing up under such circumstances? And how does learning about race change things? After all, sooner or later those kids will grow up and learn about the way the world operates. Viola Davis' character (I think) even talks about that in the movie - how as a black maid, she cares for these white kids as if they were her own and then they grow up and become as insensitive and ignorant as their parents.

2. Kathryn Stockett. As I watched The Help, I tried to put myself in her shoes. Stockett, the white novelist whose debut book was the basis for the movie, drew heavily upon her own life in order to make this fictional story. Growing up in Mississippi (with Help director Tate Taylor), being raised by a black maid; this was her world as she lived it, and it included poor black women serving as maids to affluent white families, including her own.

In writing about that world, and in attempting to capture the perspective of those black women, she couldn't have possibly known how successful she would become. She's taken some heat from people who don't think she has a right to presume what the black experience is like, but a certain amount of empathy is necessary to be a fiction writer. Should she be faulted for trying to build a bridge? I don't think so. She has said that it wasn't until much later in life, long after her maid died, that she finally began to ponder what her maid's life was like, and that this was an impetus towards writing The Help. Was that wrong? I don't see how. Even if it led her down a different path than writing a book, I believe thinking about it was bound to make her a better person.

3. Black roles throughout Hollywood history. I can't help but brace myself a little whenever I see a black maid or a cook or a porter or a butler in old movies, wondering how they'll act. Will they be "comedy relief?" Will they be overly meek and obsequious? Will they simply not matter? Sometimes I think it would've been better if they weren't in those movies at all than to be so unimportant or to be such caricatures. In recent years, it's become harder to find black roles in mainstream dramas or comedies. (Did Bridesmaids really have to star six white chicks? Did The Change-Up have to star two of the blandest, most interchangeable, white-bread actors ever?)

Davis has said that she got called out by people who thought she could do better than playing a maid, but the truth is that Aibileen is far from just another maid role. The whole point of The Help is to give a voice to those domestic servants that hover around the fringes of affluent white society. Aibileen is the film's narrator; hers is the first and last face we see. That's significant. I saw my mother in Davis, in Octavia Spencer, in all the maids in the movie. I'm probably not the only one.

4. Public opinion. I was on the verge of not seeing The Help. So much has been written about this movie, from so many angles. Critically, the consensus seems to think it's a softball down the middle, entertaining but without much depth. And I can't argue that too much. If Bryce Dallas Howard's character had a mustache, it would've been twirled vigorously. Emma Stone couldn't hold on to her Southern accent for longer than a minute, it seemed. (Has anyone noticed that both the old Gwen Stacy and the new Gwen Stacy are in this movie?) I would've liked to have gotten more of the black male perspective than the tiny bit we got. And yeah, the whole movie does easily fall into the "white person helps uplift downtrodden black folks" cliche that we see far too much of.

I had to see it for myself, though. The subject matter means too much for me to be so easily swayed by critics. Between the Association of Black Women Historians on one side and Medgar Evers' widow on the other, it was difficult to get a handle on how I "should" feel about it. Still, I came to the movie with an open mind, and you know what? I enjoyed it. I laughed at the funny parts, gasped in shock at the dramatic parts, and I might've had a little bit of ocular leakage at the end.

5. The Oscars. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say right now that Davis will win Supporting Actress.

I saw The Help with a mostly older-skewing crowd, black and white (but one with too many cellphones going off!). Afterwards, when I was in the bathroom, this old white guy started talking with me about the movie and how much he enjoyed it. He said he was 82, and that he can remember when he made a bus trip to Baltimore when he was fifteen. He had taken a seat in the back, but was told by the driver, that no, he shouldn't sit there because the back was for black folks. It was the first time he had seen racism up close and he said it was the worst thing he ever saw. I promptly told him that if that was the worst thing he saw in 82 years of life then he's had it easy. (I suppose he was probably speaking hyperbolically.) Then he said how good it was that that was over with - and it's possible he was only talking about segregated seating and not racism in general, but that's not how I interpreted it because I said no, it's not over.

Building bridges. Getting different people to sit down and talk to each other. Making an effort to listen and understand. Both the book and the movie The Help have done that and continue to do that. That's gotta be worth something.


'The Help' and black literature

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Anniversary (of my blog)

I read a statistic somewhere about the survival rate of blogs after the first year being rather low. (Unfortunately, I can't remember what it was or where I saw it, but I know I saw it.) I'd imagine people drop out from their blogs for all sorts of reasons. Keeping one going, as I've discovered this past year, isn't always as easy as it looks.

As I've mentioned, before WSW I wrote a comics blog which was picked up by a bigger website after I started it on Blogger. I was scared to create a blog at first. I'm not sure why. I suppose having the ability to control not only the content, but the look of a webpage was a new concept for me, and I wasn't entirely sure if I'd be up to the task. Still, I'd always wanted a web presence of some sort, so I figured it was worth taking the plunge and seeing what would happen.

I didn't expect to get a great deal of traffic at all, much less get picked up by a bigger site, but I did, and as a result I didn't have to think about things like promotion or advertising or anything like that, and in a way, that was a bad thing. Don't get me wrong, I was grateful for the added exposure, but I never learned the things about maintaining and growing a blog that I probably should have. I'd get frustrated when weeks would go by without any comments, thinking no one read me and not knowing what to do to change that.

So when I started WSW one year ago, I knew I couldn't approach it the same way. I knew from the beginning that I needed an angle. I don't have to tell you how many film blogs are out there, competing for attention. I knew I couldn't talk about movies as eruditely as some, even though I certainly had my fair share of knowledge about the medium and the history. That's how I came up with the idea of writing about my experience watching a movie - it's the only thing I can absolutely call my own.

Of course, writing this way means divulging a great deal about my life, such as it is. Past experience has taught me to be very careful with what I say, so I'm always conscious of what to reveal and what not to reveal. There will always be certain things I keep to myself. For instance, I've been frank in discussing my friends, but I never betray a confidence or get too personal about their lives. Sometimes I leave out names completely.

Also, there are some things I simply don't wanna get into in a public forum because they are so personal. It always amazes me how in this age of Facebook and other social networks, people are willing to reveal so much about their lives without regard as to whether they should. My life has not been particularly spectacular, but I like to think I've accomplished a few things, gone a bunch of places, and learned a thing or two, and I've tried to put that in this blog through the lens of movies.

Over this past year, I've come to believe that our experiences watching movies mean just as much as the movies themselves. Being angry or sick or bored, seeing a film with friends or solo, with a packed house or all alone, absolutely has an effect on the way one feels about a movie, and by acknowledging that, I like to think it can lead to different insights about the film itself - not always, of course, but sometimes.

My association with the LAMB has made me a smarter blogger in many ways, if only by virtue of being around so many other talented bloggers. I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge and thank the ones who have had the most impact on me this past year: Hatter, Raquelle, Ivan, Rachel, Jess, Dylan, Castor, Ruth and Alex.

And thank you for reading.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - the first post!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream NY

The website Rope of Silicon did a podcast discussion last week on whether or not Andy Serkis deserves Oscar consideration for his role as Caesar the ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's a conversation we'll likely hear more of in the years to come as performance-capture technology not only improves, but is used more often in films. And of course, it's a testament to Serkis' skill in playing a computer-generated, super-intelligent ape so believably in what was a quite entertaining and exciting movie that this discussion is even taking place.

In the podcast, the arguments against an Oscar nomination in acting for Serkis (presumably Supporting Actor, although one could argue for Lead Actor as well) were good ones. Perhaps the most basic argument, as far as Academy voters are concerned, is whether or not what we see on screen is 100% of Serkis' performance. An image of a scene was posted on the same page as the podcast comparing Serkis - headgear, facial dots, bodysuit and all - to the finished image of Caesar, and one can clearly see a slight difference in the position of the mouth. A minor thing, perhaps, but enough for one to wonder what other changes the CGI artists made.

There were other arguments. Does Serkis deserve full credit for the performance? Is this not as much a triumph of the computer animators as well? If one can credit Serkis, then why can't one credit voice actors in animated movies? The titular robot of WALL-E also generated emotion and sympathy without making human sounds. Should that be considered an award-worthy performance as well?

I don't have any easy answers to these questions. Like many people, I went into Rise knowing in my head that what I was seeing on the screen were computer-generated apes rendered through P-cap tech, and marveling not only at the look of it, but in how seamlessly it blends with the live actors and sets (including outdoor locations). After awhile, though, I forgot about all of that and only saw the characters and the performances - and the movie goes to great lengths to impress on you that Caesar is a character, a self-aware individual with desires, emotions, and ultimately, a purpose. 

Like Serkis' roles in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong, and Zoe Saldana's role in Avatar, the technology is in service to the actor that brings the character to life, and my feeling is that this is what distinguishes P-cap from voice work in animated films like WALL-E. In Rise, Serkis now has the ability to interact directly with the other actors on set and on location. That's significant. As for the issue of whether or not we see Serkis' complete performance, I admit, that's much trickier. If there is doubt, then perhaps what's needed is a "Best Digital Performance" category - one in which Serkis could share a nomination with the visual effects team. That seems like the best compromise to me.

I don't have the answers, but I know this much: sooner or later, the Academy will have to make a decision as to where they stand on P-cap performances. They're not going away, and if Serkis' body of work in the field is any indication, they're only going to get better. I believe the most we can expect from the Academy would be a special non-competitive Oscar, the kind they've given out like M&Ms in the past (including, ironically, one for the makeup in the original 1968 Apes movie). Even that, however, may be expecting too much. There's still a great deal of misunderstanding, and dare I say it, fear over P-cap and what it could mean for working actors. If so, then that's something they need to discuss in an open forum.

So how about it? Which side of the debate do you fall on?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Freeze Frame: The WSW Roundtable Take 2

We're back once again with the second in our bi-monthly series of discussions on the film world today. Meredith from M.Carter @ The Movies wasn't able to join us last time, but I'm glad to say that she's here now (although Clara from Just Chick Flicks couldn't make it this month). Returning with us are Univarn from A Life in Equinox and Andrew from Encore's World of Film and TV.

Stanwyck on TV: The Big Valley

This is Barbara Stan-week! All this week we'll celebrate the life and career of my favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, covering different eras of her long and distinguished journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Barbara Stanwyck had a tremendous film career, but her television career was equally prolific. She won three Emmy Awards over the course of her twenty-plus years on the small screen, endearing her to a new generation of fans. The Barbara Stanwyck Show was a dramatic anthology series which attracted an all-star lineup of guest stars. It only lasted a single season, but earned Stanwyck her first Emmy. She made guest appearances on a wide variety of TV shows, such as Dynasty and The Colbys in the 80s, and starred in several TV movies, including the mini-series The Thorn Birds, which was another Emmy-winner for her.

Possibly her best known television role, though, was in the ABC Western The Big Valley. Lasting four seasons from 1965-69, Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the matriarch of a 19th-century family living on a California ranch. The show also starred Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors, and future Dynasty co-star Linda Evans. Valley was a unique Western in having a woman as its big star, distinguishing it from other TV Westerns such as Bonanza, and Stanwyck would win an Emmy for this show as well. Unfortunately, Westerns in general were waning, and as a result Valley was cancelled despite its popularity, but it's still fondly remembered today.

My father loved Westerns. I mean he LOVED Westerns. Couldn't get enough of them. As a kid, I never found much appeal in them, but I think Bonanza might have been my first exposure to them because I remember liking the theme song. Anyway, I thought of him as I watched some episodes of Valley this week, and once again, regretted that I couldn't talk to him about this show, because I would've liked to have included his observations.

I must've watched the wrong episodes, because most of the ones I saw didn't feature Stanwyck as prominently as I had hoped. I understand that the younger stars carried the bulk of the show, particularly Long and Breck, but I guess I thought it'd be more of an ensemble. Still, what I did see I liked. It must have been expensive to make, what with the location shooting, the period costuming, the staging, props, even the live animals. In one episode I saw, Breck's character gets assaulted by a wildcat, and it was kinda shocking to see him (or his stunt double) tussling with an actual wildcat!

Stanwyck is billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck." Victoria, from what I saw of her, acts as the stable, steady head of the family, not unlike Bonanza's Ben Cartwright, and occasionally, she gets into the action along with her children. In another episode I saw, they're on a stagecoach that gets jacked and they're stuck in the middle of the desert without water. You'd think that she, as an old woman, would be particularly vulnerable, but she's able to survive as long as the men-folk, and it's the younger woman that's also part of the group that's passing out all over the place (she is four months pregnant, but still).

Stanwyck found new life on television when it was still a very young medium and made it work for her, and as a result, she added more memorable performances to her repertoire - only one more reason why hers is one of the great legacies in Hollywood history.


Previously in Barbara Stan-week:
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy
Sorry, Wrong Number

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sorry, Wrong Number

This is Barbara Stan-week! All this week we'll celebrate the life and career of my favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, covering different eras of her long and distinguished journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Sorry, Wrong Number
seen online via YouTube

There's this video on YouTube that compiles a bunch of moments in horror movies when the cell phone stops working for whatever reason. It's interesting to see how often it happens, because cellphones have made instant communication easier than ever - which can be a hindrance when you're writing a movie about a group of teenagers being stalked by a psycho killer. I mean, how long a movie would Halloween have been if Jamie Lee Curtis could have had the cops come down on Michael Myers with just one call, even if she was away from a land line?

Being stalked over the phone is a horror movie staple going at least as far back as Black Christmas. What I've never understood, though, is why the victim continues to stay on the line and listen to the killer rant and threaten. It's so silly! If it were me, I would've hung up long ago, but they continue to listen and to get more and more scared, and the next thing you know, boom - the killer's in the house and coming up behind them. I think one of the Scream movies made fun of this.

Sorry, Wrong Number isn't a horror movie, but the ever-mounting sense of dread the bed-ridden Barbara Stanwyck feels as a result of the telephone is palpable. While making a call, the operator accidentally connects her to a different line in which she hears two people plotting a murder. Through the series of subsequent calls she makes and receives, she learns that her missing husband may be connected to it in some way, but she can't even leave her bedroom because she has some mystery ailment. And then she figures out who the intended murder victim is and things get real in a hurry...

I didn't like the first two-thirds of the movie. The editing wasn't smooth, the music was over-the-top and I wasn't feeling a great deal of sympathy for Stanwyck's character (in flashbacks we see that she was a scheming, man-stealing bitch). But then a funny thing happened. Something about the way she played her - the state of utter hysteria she's in when the reality of her situation becomes more and more apparent - turned me right around and suddenly I wanted to know what would happen to her. And the ending just knocked me out. I could not believe it ended the way it did, but it did!

Number was Stanwyck's fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination, and while I might have thought her shrill at first, like I said, somewhere along the way she made me feel for her, which I didn't expect. And while this may not be the best film noir I've ever seen, it has its moments, especially in the cinematography. You'll see Stanwyck for instance, alone in her bedroom on the phone, and the camera will slowly move around the room, taking in everything, and then it'll move out and down the hall, all while Stanwyck is still talking on the phone. There's more than one scene like that, and it provides a nice sense of isolation. Still, it's the final fifteen minutes or so that definitely save this movie.


Previously in Barbara Stan-week:
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Golden Boy

This is Barbara Stan-week! All this week we'll celebrate the life and career of my favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, covering different eras of her long and distinguished journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Golden Boy
seen online via YouTube

The story of the great friendship between Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden is one of the sweetest in all of Hollywood, and I was pleased to learn about it while preparing for this week, since Holden is another one of my favorite actors. The short version is that Golden Boy was one of Holden's very first movies, and his inexperience showed initially. Stanwyck saw something in him, though, and fought to keep him in the key role of the young boxer torn between prize-fighting and pursuing his dream of being a violinist. Her hunch paid off, and Holden would continue to get steady work in the movies - and then, of course, Sunset Boulevard made him a superstar. He never forgot the way Stanwyck stood up for him, though, and every year he'd send her flowers on the anniversary of Golden Boy's release, April 1. And when Stanwyck received an honorary Oscar in 1982, she remembered her old friend, who had died the year before.

The movie itself is quite powerful. It's based on a play by Clifford Odets, and the dialogue in places feels quite flowery and theatrical. Odets, a former actor, co-founded the theater company called the Group Theater, and as a result had ties with guys like Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and Elia Kazan, whom I've talked about before. I wouldn't call Golden Boy a Method movie, though.

In Stanwyck's scenes with Holden, one can see pretty clearly the traces of the actor he would become, but at the same time he has a vulnerability that perhaps is the product of his youth (I didn't even recognize him at first). They have a good rapport with each other, which one can see even in the scenes where they quarrel. Stanwyck had been in the game for over a decade at this point, having already made movies with directors such as William Wellman, King Vidor and Frank Capra, and had gotten the first of what would be her four Best Actress Oscar nominations (for Stella Dallas), so for her to be able to see something in Holden seems reasonable to me.

It's also worth mentioning that Golden Boy came out in the extraordinary year of 1939, regarded by many as perhaps the greatest year in movie history: the year of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and many more. What was it about that year? Who knows? Maybe the stars aligned just right for Hollywood.


Previously in Barbara Stan-week:
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About