Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Five theories why Katherine Heigl is a leading lady

I'm only half-joking with this post. While my original intent was to have some fun with this topic, the truth is that the more I think about it, the more it bothers me, because something like this seems to defy conventional wisdom.

Katherine Heigl had been kicking around film and television ever since the 90s prior to her role in the hit TV series Grey's Anatomy. (Apparently she had a part in one of my favorite Steven Soderbergh movies, the underrated King of the Hill.) Then, in 2007, came the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up, a huge hit. Suddenly she's in great demand. Understandable. Hollywood tries to market her as a leading lady, but she can't quite pull it off. From 27 Dresses (41% on the Rotten Tomatoes rankings) to The Ugly Truth (13%) to Killers (11%) to Life As We Know It (28%), it's been one long streak of fail, and now she appears to have hit a new low with her current film, One For the Money (an embarrassing 3%). She was also part of the god-awful ensemble comedy New Year's Eve (7%). Dresses and Truth did relatively well financially, but the box office numbers have dwindled considerably since then. She's certainly not making Reese Witherspoon numbers.

And then there's her controversial side.

Given all of this, one has to wonder why Heigl continues to be given all these chances to succeed as a leading lady in films - not as a character actress, but an above-the-title star, with a marketing campaign and everything. Posters for One For the Money are everywhere in NYC right now, and I recall recently walking past the AMC Lincoln Center where they were setting up a red-carpet premiere for Money that evening. Talent is not the question here. Heigl is an Emmy winner, so she presumably has the goods. It's more about why she not only makes bad movie after bad movie, but is allowed to make them.

You don't need me to tell you that women in general have a harder time succeeding in films than men, and that the older they are, the tougher it becomes. Yet here we have a case where an actress, propelled to stardom as a result of her television work and one big hit movie (one in which she was not the focus), has been continually permitted to make bad movies to diminishing returns at the box office, something you rarely see from an actress. Sarah Jessica Parker fits this bill also, but she doesn't have the bad rep as a constant complainer that Heigl has.

So what's going on here? Maybe it's one of these reasons - which are purely speculative and are not meant to be all that serious:

- She... gets around. If you know what I mean. And I think you do. Don't mean to be crass about it, but hey, she wouldn't be the first.

- She's a closet Scientologist. I'm probably more inclined to believe this, which tells you a lot about how much Hollywood has changed over the years.

- She has dirt on the studio heads. Blackmail! Always a great way to advance one's career.

- She and/or her agent have no taste in screenplays. Money appears to be a step away from the rom-com formula, at least, but it looks like that's not working either.

- Mind control. Though maybe that should fall under Scientology!

Of course, maybe it's possible she's just misunderstood. That wouldn't explain all the bad choices she's made with her movies, though. Perhaps you have a better theory you'd like to share.

Monday, January 30, 2012


seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey City, Jersey City NJ

My high school prom was on a boat, if you can believe that. For three hours we got to ride around the island of Manhattan on a little cruise ship rented for the occasion by my school. It was pretty awesome. I remember during the first few months of my senior year, I had a certain girl in mind that I wanted to take to the prom, but that went out the window once it became obvious that I was attracted to someone else. They say you never forget your first true love, and that certainly applies to my eventual date, a girl I fell deeply and passionately in love with and dated for a couple of years. On the big night, we even matched: she wore a gorgeous sky-blue dress and I had on a silver tuxedo with a powder-blue tie and cummerbund, and a blue top hat to match.

I've written here before about how "voguing" was in that year thanks to Madonna's song "Vogue" and how we all danced to it that night. We didn't have a live band, like you usually see in the movies whenever there's a prom, though that would've been great too. We did have a king and queen, though I'll be damned if I can remember who it was. No one I was friends with, that's for sure.

As much as any other movie about teenagers, Carrie works aggressively at portraying the feelings of importance surrounding this traditional high school event. The cheesy decorations, the lousy live band, and the outfits are naturally part of it all, but director Brian De Palma really pushes it as a girly fantasy through and through, from the bird's eye view of the ceiling decorations descending into the crowd, to the vertigo-inducing worm's eye shot of Carrie and Tommy spinning round and round as they slow dance, the super-slo-mo images of Carrie being crowned prom queen, and of course the music throughout it all. The bucket of corn syrup pig's blood descending down on her head is almost a relief, or would be if that moment wasn't stretched out to near-infinity.

I have no doubt that the high school prom (is it "the prom" or just "prom"? Apparently modern kids favor the latter) means more to girls than to boys. It plays to many romantic fantasies, as well as the idea of finally Growing Up and becoming a Full-Fledged Adult. And yes, that sappy stuff can apply to the fellas too; that's certainly how I saw my junior high school prom, for instance. I went stag, but I got to dance with the girl I was infatuated with at the time and I walked home light-headed and carefree, as if in a dream. It's a nice feeling, and I don't fault De Palma for trying to capture it. It's just a little too much to watch after awhile.

But of course, we all remember Carrie for what happens after that bucket falls. I've never read the book, but I imagine Stephen King goes into more detail into what the film makes implicit: that Carrie's telekinetic superpowers are a metaphor for puberty. Or perhaps it's not so implicit; after all, the film essentially begins with Carrie getting her period. It's been the impetus for many an X-Men comic book - heck, Carrie is more or less Jean Grey without the telepathy, right down to the red hair. 

The X-comics always emphasize the need to work at controlling a mutant's powers, lest they get out of control. In Carrie, and indeed, many similar movies, this never seems to be a problem. We see Carrie's powers erupt spontaneously, but we never really see her work at controlling them. By the prom night climax, Carrie looks like she's ready to take on Magneto singlehandedly.

Carrie screened at the Loews as part of a twin bill tribute to actress Piper Laurie, who was in attendance. (The other film was The Hustler, which screened earlier.) Laurie recently came out with an autobiography called Learning to Live Out Loud, which she signed copies of. She still looks good at age eighty. Film historian and Loews regular Foster Hirsch was on hand for a Q-and-A with Laurie in-between movies, in which she talked about her early career under contract at Universal International and how unfulfilling she found it, and how she had to develop the ability to express her needs, which did not always come easily for her. She also talked about working with her Hustler co-stars Paul Newman (whom she was dazzled by) and George C. Scott (whom she was intimidated by), as well as Carrie director De Palma (she originally thought the film was a comedy!).

For pics of Laurie as well as shots of the Loews itself, be sure to go to the WSW Facebook page.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

AFFRM to co-distribute 'Middle of Nowhere'

Participant Media and AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) have jointly acquired U.S. theatrical rights to MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, an elegant and emotional drama chronicling a woman’s separation from her incarcerated husband and her journey to maintain her marriage and her identity. Written and directed by AFFRM founder Ava DuVernay, the film was produced by DuVernay and Howard Barish with producer Paul Garnes.

Don't get me wrong; I want to see this movie and I'm glad it got to play at Sundance, but I can't help but be a little bit troubled over the fact that two of the first three films distributed by AFFRM are ones made by its founder. DuVernay has said that her plan was to get two films a year and now the first one for 2012 is another film of hers. I understand that she wants to get her films out there too, but I'd also like to see AFFRM acquire films from other filmmakers, especially if they're as superb as Kinyarwanda.

Black film fests form distribution network
AFFRM's DuVernay: POCs are part of indie film too

Soundtrack Saturday: John Williams

Let's be honest: if you're reading this blog, chances are you can hum at least three John Williams tunes, if not more. His scores have transcended the film world and have become part of the mainstream culture at large, and while he's worked with a variety of different filmmakers, in many people's minds he's mostly associated with Steven Spielberg. This is the last Soundtrack Saturday feature. I have something special planned for the next four Saturdays in February (also music related), and then a new regular Saturday feature will begin in March, so what better way to end than with a tribute to the undisputed king of film composers?

Star Wars: Music By John Williams,
a documentary about the making of the Empire Strikes Back score
with a look at some of his earlier work from the 60s and 70s

Friday, January 27, 2012

The argument for Viola Davis

When I first wrote about The Help, I, like many people, believed Viola Davis would get recognized by the Academy for an Oscar nomination, but in the Supporting Actress category. The confusion, I suppose, was understandable. The film is very much an ensemble, with a variety of top-notch actresses, young and old, in pivotal roles, and at first glance, Emma Stone's character would seem to be the focal point, since she's the one writing the book that sets the story in motion. In truth, however, The Help belongs more to Davis' character Aibileen. Hers is the first and last face we see on screen, and hers is the voice that narrates the film, and this is why Davis has been placed in the Best Actress category instead, and deservedly so.

I'm not interested in dredging up the politics of the film again; that's been done repeatedly over the last six months or so, by better writers than me. I wanna talk about Davis. Her biggest competitor for the little gold man is, and has been, long before her movie even came out, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic. Everyone's so eager to see her win her third Oscar after a drought of over 25 years, and with uber-producer Harvey Weinstein in her corner this year, it's looking like a real possibility this time. Streep and Davis are both up for the SAG Award for Best Actress as well, and the winner of that will have a major advantage in the race for the Oscar.

At the moment (though this could change) I'm leaning towards Davis winning both SAG and the Oscar. Both SAG and the Academy have shown deeper support for Help than for Lady. The former has both a SAG Ensemble and a Best Picture Oscar nod, in addition to Supporting Actress nominations. Aibileen is a more sympathetic character than Margaret Thatcher, and that counts for something when you're talking about a voting body - the Academy - that put films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and War Horse in the Best Picture field ahead of more challenging films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Drive.

Also, and this really can't be ignored when you're talking about the Academy, if Davis wins, she would become only the second black woman to ever win Best Actress. (The first one, of course, was Halle Berry.) The injustice of a record like this speaks for itself. For all of the Academy's attempts to appear progressive throughout their history, they don't grok race as well as they like to think.

Still, in the past decade, they've attempted to recognize more actors of color, as well as foreign-language performances, and while I obviously can't say for sure that this issue at the forefront of their minds, I suspect the Academy is at the very least aware of what's at stake. Plus, one look at the awards The Help has picked up should show you that Davis and the film in general have been legitimately recognized in many other venues.

Like I said, this weekend's SAG Awards will make a huge difference in who wins the Best Actress Oscar (some people think Michelle Williams could steal it from both Streep and Davis), but as of now, I'm convinced that Davis will come up the winner by a slim margin.


'The Help' and black literature

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York NY

I recently saw a commercial from European television - I forget which country, but it's the kind of ad that would never, ever get shown in America. A father and son are in a supermarket shopping. The son is maybe about four or five years old. The son wants to buy candy or some other kind of sweet, but Dad says no, and the kid throws a five-alarm-fire tantrum like you wouldn't believe. He's yelling and screaming and kicking things and generally raising a ruckus, and from the look on Dad's face, you can tell he's powerless to fully control his son when he's like this. And that's when we find out what this ad is for: Surprise! It's an ad for condoms!

Now even I'm willing to admit that that may be a bit unfair, but I also think it's indisputable that many people enter parenthood thinking it'll be more pleasant than it actually is. I dealt with this subject when I wrote about The 400 Blows, and in a way, We Need to Talk About Kevin is that movie from the mother's perspective.

One of the great Philosophy 101 thought experiments posits the question: what would you do with Adolf Hitler as an infant, knowing what he'll grow up to become? There's an implication within that question that suggests some people are simply born evil, but of course, one can't detect that. In Kevin, we're led to believe that the title character is indeed bad to the bone, and there's nothing Tilda Swinton's character, his mother, can do to change it.

Would I kill Hitler as a baby - assuming, of course, I had concrete evidence that this was, indeed, the child who would grow up to be that man? Probably not. I mean, c'mon, how can anyone kill a baby? I might opt to do something like keep Hitler's parents apart; make sure they never meet (as long as we're talking about time travel anyway). Or perhaps I'd steal him and bring him to America and raise him as a completely different person with no knowledge of where he came from.

As creatures of free will, we have the capacity to choose to do good or evil. The idea that anyone can be born bad can make for good fiction, as is the case with Kevin, but it smacks too much of predestination for it to be plausible in real life. 

But let's stick with the movie's premise: that someone can be born evil. In Kevin, Eva, Kevin's mom, has a complete inability to connect with Kevin, practically from his birth. As an infant, he always cries whenever she tries to pick him up. (There's a great moment where we see Eva standing next to construction workers drilling into the street just so she can hear something other than the sound of Kevin crying.) As he gets older, Kevin seems to deliberately antagonize Eva, yet he gets along fine with his father, Franklin, who isn't convinced there's a problem with his son. Any kind of medical condition is ruled out, and there's no Omen-type of supernatural cause, either (it's not that kind of film).

When Kevin does the awful thing he eventually does, blame falls at Eva's feet. Is that fair? If Kevin was in fact, born bad, was there anything Eva could've done about it - except kill him? But how could she have known for sure? How could anyone know? If nature can't be changed, if who we are is determined from the day we're born, then conscience and accountability have no place. We can do what we like and not fear consequences because we're not responsible for our actions. Perhaps Kevin realizes this, because when he does that awful thing, he shows no remorse for it, nor is he able to rationalize it. Eva, however, still suffers the consequences, which is where the heart of this film's tragedy lies.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar 2011: The nominees

For Best Picture:

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The rest of the nominees.

I find myself kinda underwhelmed by the overall choices. It looked like Dragon Tattoo had a legitimate shot at Picture, which I would've been in favor of, but they went instead with safe choices like War Horse and especially Loud, the latter of which had received unflattering reviews. (At least Steven Spielberg didn't get a Director nod.) Given a choice, the Academy will go with sentiment over innovation more often than not, and that's something I should've remembered. I'm glad I correctly picked Tree, even though I hated the movie, though I should've realized director Terence Malick would've gotten in as well.

No Michael Fassbender for Actor is very disappointing, though my disappointment is mitigated by the inclusion of Gary Oldman. I hated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I did like Oldman in it, and it's great to see him finally get recognized by the Academy. Rooney Mara for Actress is a nice surprise. Shaileen Woodley and Ben Kingsley missing out in Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor is not as nice. I was feeling fairly confident that Melissa McCarthy would make the cut for Supporting Actress, so I'm glad I picked her.

I picked A Separation for Original Screenplay, but not Margin Call. Tinker got Adapted Screenplay, so I guess I must be stupid in not being able to follow that movie. Or perhaps I just need to be British. And only two Original Song nominees? Really?

In the end, I guess it doesn't matter what I think of the nominees, because The Artist looks like it's gonna win and win big. Whatever. I can't really complain if that does happen. It's a good, enjoyable movie. Just not what I would've voted for.

Like the nominees? Hate them? Let's talk.

Oscar 2010: The nominees
AMPAS to play roulette with Oscar Best Pic field

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sherlock Jr./The Play House

Sherlock Jr./The Play House
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey City, Jersey City NJ

The more I see of the work of Buster Keaton, the more amazed I am. I used to only know him as one of the giants of silent screen comedy - one third of the holy trinity of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Now, though, I also see him as a remarkable filmmaker who, in some respects, was ahead of his time.

This past Saturday, when we got hit with snow for the first time this winter (not much), the Loews Jersey City showed a Keaton twin bill: Sherlock Jr. and The Play House. The former is Keaton as a film projectionist who fantasizes about being a detective; the latter portrays his misadventures behind the scenes of a stage production. While both of them were funny in their own ways, I found myself more amazed at the technical wizardry employed by the director-star.

In Sherlock, there's a scene where Keaton's character dreams that he's able to step into a movie, and then we follow him through a breathtaking sequence of ever-changing scenery, but Keaton moves from one to the other as if it were all one scene. I can't imagine how he could've pulled it off in 1924, especially since the transitions are almost perfectly seamless. There's also a hair-raising chase in which Keaton is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike with no driver, and he dodges cars in a manner that would require expert timing.

Play House, meanwhile, opens with a different dream scene, in which Keaton plays a variety of characters all at the same time, including the orchestra conductor, members of the orchestra itself, a bunch of stage performers (including, sadly, a couple in blackface), and audience members - male and female. Actors playing double roles within individual scenes has become almost commonplace in films, and to a lesser extent, TV (Eddie Murphy has practically made it a fine art) but this was made in 1921, when film was still relatively new - and again, Keaton made it look quite convincing! 

As I've stated before, The Artist and Hugo have both done much to pay tribute to the silent film era, but there's nothing like actually seeing those films to appreciate the craft at play there. We've become so used to computer-generated effects and RED cameras and digital photography in our films that it's easy to forget that innovation in film is not something restricted to the last twenty years. The effects in these films may seem commonplace today, but the fact that Keaton was able to pull them off during a much earlier period in film history makes them even more amazing to look at.

It was good to be back at the Loews; I hadn't been there in months and I missed it. I went with Reid; it was his first time there and he seemed impressed with the place. He ran into an acquaintance of his while we were there; this old guy named Fred and his lady friend whose name escapes me. The two of them talked a great deal about old movies on the PATH train ride back into the city.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My obligatory top 10 for 2011

I wasn't gonna do this at first. Then I thought I'd do it, but post it on the WSW Facebook page instead. I used to do year-end top tens on my old comics blog and it kinda got old after awhile for me, and I didn't think there'd even be much of an interest in it here anyway. But I think people always have an interest in year-end top tens. And besides, I did see some really good films in 2011, and I'd probably regret it later if I didn't do at least one year-end top ten on this blog, so here we go...


10. Higher Ground. A movie that I connected deeply with. It's not easy to question the ideals one has grown up with, especially if it has to do with religion. I just felt like this spoke right to me. Plus, it has made me a fan for life of the remarkable Vera Farmiga, who starred in and directed it while pregnant and gave one of the best, most overlooked performances by an actress this year. I really hope this is only the beginning of her filmmaking career.

9. Restless City. Easily one of the highlights of the Urbanworld Film Festival for me, Andrew Dosunmu's tale of African immigrants in the big city is visually breathtaking to look at, with a compelling character-driven story to complement it. I don't think this one has hit the radar of too many other film sites and critics, which is unfortunate. Perhaps it can find a distributor in 2012. I hope so, because I could easily see this as an art house hit, much the same way Steve McQueen's Hunger was a few years ago. Like McQueen, Dosunmu has an eye for artistic composition and color that shows through in his work.

8. Attack the Block. Another fine example of the power word of mouth can have on a film. The more I kept seeing people blog about this one, the more I thought I'd better give it a shot - and I'm glad I did. Why do studios feel the need to throw hundreds of millions of dollars on "tentpole" action movies every year when a smaller-budget film like this can do the job as well, if not better?

7. Hugo. Of course, big-budget movies can be great too, if done right! What can you say about Martin Scorsese that hasn't already been said? After over forty years in show business, he not only shows no signs of slowing down, he continues to push past his boundaries and discover new ways to express his love of film, and this one expresses it in a lively and unique way. A Scorsese movie shouldn't really qualify as such, but I found this to be one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011.

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene. It wasn't just Elizabeth Olsen's mesmerizing performance in this film that sold me, but John Hawkes' too. Together, they made for one killer combo in this strikingly original film in which what you don't see is every bit as important as what you do see. This was a film I had to be coaxed into, not being entirely certain what to expect - is it a horror film? A suspense film? There's an Olsen sister that can actually act? Sometimes, though, you just have to jump into the deep end and take a chance on a film. This was another one of those times, and it paid off.

5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Way better than it had a right to be, this was the best film of the summer by a longshot. By now, you're probably sick of hearing me rave about Andy Serkis' remarkable performance-capture role as ape of destiny Caesar, so let me just say this: while I don't honestly think he will get a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, in the end it doesn't matter, because the impact he has made, with his roles in the Lord of the Rings films, King Kong, Tintin, and this, has already been made and felt, and will continue to be felt. Should all movies use p-cap? No, but when applied the right way, it can make all the difference between a mediocre film and a good one.

4. Kinyarwanda. One of the great movie industry stories of 2011, without question, is the success of AFFRM and their ability to bring quality black films into major movie theaters in major markets nationwide. I Will Follow was first, but this one, I believe, was the best. A moving, suspenseful, funny and life-affirming story, its lesson - that forgiveness is a greater power than vengeance - is one that we all badly need to learn. Thank you, Alrick Brown, for directing it, and thank you, Ava DuVernay, for distributing both this and I Will Follow. Keep up the good work. 

3. Pariah. I needed no coaxing to see this one; I was sold on it ever since I first read about it way back during last year's coverage of Sundance. Not that I can attest to what life is like for a black teenage lesbian, but it felt real, it felt honest, and it felt down-to-earth. Writer-director Dee Rees is a name I hope to hear a lot more of in the future, especially if she can make movies like this. In my dreams, this screenplay gets an Oscar nomination. Will never happen, I realize, but I keep seeing FYC ads for it so who knows?

2. The Descendants. I never said this in my original post, but a major reason why I loved this so much was because it made me think of my father. He wasn't in a coma, like George Clooney's character's wife, but there are things I would've liked to have said to him before he died and never got the chance to. Nothing earth-shaking, but small, personal things that perhaps would've made me understand him a little better. So in that sense I felt like I could relate to what this story was all about - and of course, Clooney was so wonderful in it. While his was not the best performance by an actor in 2011, in my opinion, I'm gonna pull for him anyway because my top choice in that category probably won't make the cut...

1. Take Shelter. ...and this is it. I have Kris Tapley of In Contention to thank for turning me on to this film. I was very reluctant about seeing it, but he kept going on about it and how great it was and how great Michael Shannon is in it, so I was like, okay, I'll see it. Descendants is the only 2011 film I gave five lambs to at the LAMB forums, but it's this that has stuck with me the most - especially that ending. Shannon and Jessica Chastain were both riveting in it, and it's certainly nothing if not reflective of the state of the world today. It can also be interpreted in more than one way, however, which is so amazing about it. A first-rate job from writer-director Jeff Nichols.

Agree? Disagree? Let's talk about it.

[FYI: Look for my Oscar nomination predictions this Friday on the WSW Facebook page!]

Top 5 movie-related moments of 2011

Monday, January 16, 2012

Stella Dallas

Stella Dallas
seen online via YouTube

The more I keep seeing trailers for Titanic 3D, the more I kinda feel like I maybe, MAYBE wanna see it. Viewing it on the big screen reminds me of the first time I saw it - and while a big part of its appeal, arguably the biggest, is the sheer epic spectacle of watching the ship sink, the tragic-love-story element is hard to resist too. (Perhaps I'll see it if there's nothing else worth watching.)

Melodramas have that uncanny ability to get under your skin. Sometimes it doesn't work, but other times it does. When I wrote about War Horse, my impression was that it tried too hard to sell its story - though, if I were to be totally honest, a lot of the classic "women's pictures" from back in the day were similar, if not the same. 

But you know what? I wasn't gonna cop to this, but I guess I will: I cut classic films more slack in this area. Why? Maybe it's because I expect different things from modern movies - a greater degree of sophistication, perhaps? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm just plain biased in favor of classic movies? Possibly. Either way, I admit that when it comes to overt appeals towards emotion and sentiment, I tend to accept it more in classic films than in modern ones. Perhaps it's not rational or consistent, but it's the truth.

So it was that Stella Dallas made a play for my heartstrings and just barely succeeded in giving them a brief tug. Barbara Stanwyck was a major reason why, naturally; my love of her is well-documented in this blog. The film's about a working-class chick who marries into high society and struggles to fit in, as much as she wants to. The situation gets complicated when she has a child who develops a taste for the good life, too. It starts off as if it's gonna go down a similar path to Mildred Pierce (which this film precedes by seven years), but veers in a quite different direction before it's all over.

Stanwyck makes all the difference, as you can imagine. In Baby Face, she's also a social climber, but she's much more devious about it - and more successful at fitting in as a result. Here, her character has a tougher time adjusting to high society, and that's where the heart of the drama lay, both before and after she has her daughter. The sacrifice she ultimately chooses to make is a hard one, but once again, Stanwyck makes you believe it - and because she's Stanwyck and because I love her, I do believe it. What more can I say?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same
seen @ reRun Gastropub Theater @ reBar, DUMBO, Brooklyn NY

There's a great old Star Trek episode where Mr. Spock, under the influence of alien plant life, loses his emotional control and is able to express his love for this human woman who has a crush on him. For an alien who practices stoicism as a survival method, Spock always managed to be attractive to the ladies - and that was as much true in real life as on the show. Of course, this can't last, and when Spock becomes himself again, the chick's all broken up, but he tells her he can't willingly change, even if he wanted to: "If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's."

Now, in Spock's case, he has to maintain emotional control because Vulcan emotions are so passionate and dangerous they can do serious harm, to himself and to others. The aliens of the indie flick Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same are similar, only their lack of emotional control is believed to have led to an environmental crisis on their planet. Three of their worst offenders have been exiled to Earth, never to return unless they can purge their emotionalism by having their hearts broken.

I was expecting this to be a parody of 50's sci-fi alien invasion movies with a post-modern sensibility, and while it kinda is in a superficial sense (the makeup, the costumes, the spaceship), it doesn't go far in that direction, though I suspect that wasn't really the intent anyway. As the title makes clear, the emphasis is on exploring romantic relationships, and of course there's a human woman who falls for one of these lesbian space aliens. There are also a pair of government agents on the hunt for the aliens.

While there are some mildly amusing scenes (the one where they're dancing in the bar is perhaps the funniest), I didn't feel like Space Alien explored its premise deeply enough. We're told stuff more than we're shown stuff. For instance, we don't get to see a lot of the past of Jane, the human protagonist (who rides a bike!), and why she would be more susceptible to falling in love with a female alien than with another human woman. We are, however, told quite a bit in her therapy sessions. The subplot with the two aliens who try to start a relationship with each other goes somewhere for a while, but then it fizzles for no good reason. And every time we see the G-men, they're yammering, Pulp Fiction-style, about minutiae not directly related to their mission. They're no Mulder and Scully.

I never felt like there was a great sense of risk. Tying the aliens' emotions to an impending planetary disaster that we don't even see the consequences of was a mistake. This is sci-fi! Instead of a hole in the ozone layer (Really? That's the best you can come up with?) how about having their world blow up unless they kick these overly-emotional aliens the hell out of there quick? How about dealing with the fact that by being true to their natures, these exiles can never go back home? And how about giving Jane a wider arc than "she meets an alien - she falls in love with her"? One with more at stake for her personally? And either get rid of the G-men or make them more a part of the story. They were dead weight.

Space Alien played at a new venue for movies in New York: reRun, a screening room that's part of the DUMBO restaurant reBar. It's particularly unique in that the cooking staff of the restaurant also provides eats and drinks for reRun, and it's a cut above standard movie theater fare: gourmet hot dogs and pretzels (!), stuffed baked focaccia, popcorn with flavored powder coatings, and more! And of course there's also a bar.

All this week at the Space Alien screenings (last night was the last night), reRun offered a deal where if you arrived a half-hour earlier or more and spent at least $7 on food (the same price as admission), the admission was free. I, naturally, chose to take advantage of this, but I didn't expect so large a crowd a half-hour before showtime. All told, there must have been 100-125 people in this small screening room and half of them were bellying up to the lone person behind the bar taking all their orders. A second bartender arrived later, and by then I was able to order my $7 popcorn.

reRun actually has stadium seating, if you can believe it, though last night they actually had to add folding chairs in the front to accommodate the large crowd. The seats were comfy - high-backed, just the way I like them - but the floor came up higher than usual, so my knees were almost up to my chest. Plus, my seat kept leaning back when I first tried to sit back in it, which made getting comfortable a bit tricky at first. 

I sat next to an old dude who had a copy of the 2012 Leonard Maltin guide with him. He said he writes about movies too, but he just makes lists of his favorite movies for his friends. Going in alphabetical order, he's only on the B's so far, so we ended up talking about movies beginning with B, like Bringing Up Baby and Bridge on the River Kwai. He said he likes supporting indy films, but he wasn't too impressed with Space Alien either.

Space Alien writer-director Madeleine Olnek was on hand, along with several cast members and the makeup artist. Afterwards she talked about the movie, saying it was shot guerrilla style, without permits, all through Greenwich Village, which she said she wanted to make as much a part of the movie as anything else. She also talked about the venues she had to film in - bars, restaurants, etc. - and working with the owners to get their permission. She wouldn't discuss budget. Her elderly dad had a couple of scenes in the movie, and he was in the audience as well, though he left before the Q-and-A afterwards. The makeup artist said it took about two hours to get those bald-caps on the actresses playing the aliens, and she did a good job from what I could tell.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

I'm having computer troubles so posting may be light over the next week or so. Please bear with me.

The Adventures of Tintin
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens NY

In his seminal book about the history and unique nature of the medium, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud posited that the appeal of Tintin creator Herge's art style lay not just in his "ligna claire" style - the ease and grace of his linework - but also the fact that the character is a simply-rendered image against a meticulously-rendered background. McCloud states that the simpler a character is drawn, the more universal its appeal, since the lack of specificity makes it easier for one to project themselves into the character.

As a visual artist, I can attest to this. In college, I learned the value of juxtaposing simple, less-detailed areas against heavily-detailed ones. When I started making comics, however, my inclination was to draw like most superhero artists, since I was under the mistaken belief that this was how one becomes a success in the industry. It wasn't until I changed my style to one closer in spirit to Herge's that I began to get noticed (not that I ever became a star or anything).

In North America, comics fans generally tend to prefer detail to a ridiculous degree, particularly in their superhero comics: every last vein and muscle on the bodies; elaborate costumes and weaponry; cityscapes in which you can see every window in every building. One popular artist pays so much attention to detail that he actually broke his wrist while drawing a highly-anticipated crossover mini-series featuring characters from Marvel and DC Comics. While such devotion is commendable, I was taught that in art, detail for detail's sake is less important than being judicious with it - knowing how to use it and where. Herge embodies this philosophy, which may be one reason why Tintin, as well as Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics, have historically been more popular in Europe.

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have said that they chose to make The Adventures of Tintin in computer-generated performance capture (I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not it should be called animation), in part, to pay tribute to Herge's distinctive style. The film is a marvelous hybrid of Herge's character designs with the photorealism capable with CGI. Tintin looks more or less like a real teenager, even with his distinctive duck-tail hairdo, but secondary characters like Haddock and Thomson & Thompson maintain their more distinctive features. And of course, with p-cap, their movements seem more fluid and natural.

I forewent seeing Tintin in 3D, though I'll bet it looks great that way. Still, I was quite taken with this film. The non-stop action has the feel of Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies. I confess, I've read very little Tintin myself, so perhaps the books answer a few nagging questions I had - for instance, if he's a reporter, why do we never see his office, or at least his editor (if he's only a freelancer)? Doesn't matter though.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Room (2003)

The Room (2003)
seen @ Sunshine Cinema, New York NY

There are many unknown filmmakers out there who believe their work to be of high quality - and some of them are. The odds against them achieving any kind of fame are long, but still they persevere. Now imagine yourself as one of them for a moment. You've taken film classes, you've studied the work of the great directors of film history, you've refined and reworked your screenplay over and over with the help of friends and teachers and you've got a solid cast and crew. You believe you've got what it takes to become the next Spielberg or Scorsese. Then along comes some guy who makes a horrible, horrible film by every stretch of the imagination - one that, against all logic, becomes a cult hit. How would that make you feel?

I don't believe anyone truly sets out to make a "bad" movie. Some filmmakers may aim for camp or parody or satire, and in so doing, deliberately lower their standards, but I don't think that's quite the same thing. That's more like being in on the joke. One is led to believe that quality will eventually win out over time - a statement that can apply to any creative medium. However, thanks to the Internet, we live in an age where both the good stuff and the bad stuff can not only be preserved, but analyzed and celebrated, to a degree, for all time - and word of mouth is much quicker.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Soundtrack Saturday: James Horner

Main title from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

"The Sinking" from Titanic (1997)

"Jake's First Flight" from Avatar


Not film-related but it is music-related: my sister sent me a link to the blog of this cartoonist who does comic strip "music video" parodies, mostly of 80's videos. Pretty funny, too. Check it out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sister, Sister (1982)

Couldn't find a poster for this TV movie, so here's a title card.
Sister, Sister (1982)
seen online via YouTube

I've never been big on poetry, so I'm not too familiar with most of the writings of Maya Angelou. I've read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, of course. I own a copy; it's a marvelous book. I'm probably more familiar with her career in Hollywood. As an actress, she was in Roots, which everyone's seen. As a director, she made a film called Down in the Delta with Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes, and that was pretty good. And as a screenwriter, she's mostly written a bunch of teleplays, including the adaptation of Caged Bird and a film called Sister, Sister that aired on NBC in 1982, three years after it was filmed. Supposedly the network was worried about low ratings - 'cause, y'know, who's gonna watch a black drama?

Basically it's about three sisters with family issues: uptight Jesus freak Diahann Carroll (who also starred in Caged Bird), struggling single mother Rosalind Cash, and oppressed little sister Irene Cara. Angelou's teleplay is more than a little too literary in places - certain lines that may sound one way on the page sound different when they're actually said out loud - but it's good overall.

To us 70s-80s kids, we remember Carroll from Dynasty (yes, I watched the nighttime soaps - Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest - even though I was probably way too young to understand much of them), but of course, she had a long career in mostly television before that, most notably for the TV series Julia. She was even in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special, if you can believe that. (She was also in Carmen Jones.)

For all the craziness of today's reality TV, the 70s and 80s were a pretty trashy period for TV as well. You'd think a little kid wouldn't have much interest in adult shows like the aforementioned nighttime soaps, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, etc., but I did, and I'm sure there were plenty of others like me who watched them also. Why? Partly because we were little TV sponges who would soak up anything and everything on the boob tube, but also, I suspect, to catch a glimpse of adult life, or at least a distorted representation of same.

Fortunately, Sister, Sister is much more down to earth than the antics of the Carringtons and Colbys. I don't remember seeing any ads for this movie on NBC or in TV Guide, though I'm sure I must've come across them, especially in TV Guide. That's unfortunate, because I think I would've got something out of this, even as a kid. Better late than never, I guess. (BTW, here's a blog about TV movies from the 70s and 80s, if you're interested.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

War Horse

War Horse
seen @ UA Kaufman Astoria Cinemas, Astoria, Queens, NY

I remember when my sister went through her horse phase. She had this one horse doll that she always kept on her shelf. It wasn't articulated; it was just a model of a brown and white horse. I don't recall if its tail was hair or not. Sometimes I'd play with it when she wasn't around. I think she had a horse calendar and maybe even a horse poster at one time too. I definitely remember going to see The Black Stallion with her and my mother when it came out. It was playing at the other RKO theater on Main Street in Flushing - not the Keith's on Northern Boulevard, but the other one, whose name I can't recall. Point is, my sister loved horses.

Myself, I remember going to the petting zoo in Flushing Meadow Park as a kid with my mother and seeing horses for the first time there. I think I may have even gotten to ride a pony. I would've been about six, maybe seven. The summer camp in Massachusetts I worked at had horses, which some of the kids would ride. There was this one camper - a 13-year-old girl named Claire; I'll never forget her - who allegedly once inquired as to whether or not the fenced-off area that the horses roamed in were only "psychological boundaries." I say allegedly because I got this quote second-hand, but it's exactly the kind of thing she would say. One day I'll have to tell you about her.

I never had pets growing up, but I've seen first-hand how devoted people can get with them. Bibi and Eric, for instance, have a sign near the front door of their house that says something like, "In case of fire, please rescue our cats." I've known other friends whose attachment to their pet dogs and cats is unshakeable. So the relationship between Albert, the main character of War Horse, and the eponymous horse Joey, is certainly nothing unusual on the face of it.

The original source of both this film and the recent stage play of the same name is a young adult novel, and War Horse the film does feel like the kind of story written for that audience, even if it hasn't been marketed as such. An animal's loyalty to its beloved master, tested through time and circumstance, hits many of the same notes as anything out of Benji or Lassie, only on a much bigger scale in this case.

Some people who have fully embraced this film don't like the fact that its unabashed emotionalism and sentimentality has been a turn-off for others. I admit, I was hesitant to see it for this reason, especially since director Steven Spielberg is a Grade-A master at it. Now that I've seen the film, I find that my initial suspicions were more or less correct: the melodramatic aspects of War Horse are given the hard-sell like I couldn't believe. Especially that ending!

So is this a bad thing? Well, I can certainly be a sucker for sentimental movies just like anybody else, and I got caught up with this story too. But yeah, in the end I'm afraid the hard-sell was a bit much for me in this particular case. Sometimes I'm willing to accept it, other times not, and this one was the latter. Still, Spielberg seems more guilty of this tactic than other filmmakers, and I suppose I was hoping for something different here. 

Also, I'm willing to accept that I may be too much of a cynical bastard to take War Horse to heart. That's entirely possible. The manner in which Albert and Joey are eventually reunited (not a spoiler; this is a Spielberg film after all) literally had me going "Oh my god" as I saw it happen, as in "Oh my god is this really how it's gonna happen?" And again, I've been willing to go along with a film's melodrama on occasion, but this wasn't one. Spielberg does the emotional hard-sell better than anyone else, and it does not make his films inherently bad, but after all these years, it no longer comes as much of a surprise.

I thought I might have to get violent on somebody in the audience who talked on and off throughout the movie - a little louder than I would've liked, too. I don't think it was an older person; the old couple at the opposite end of my row did mutter intermittently as well, but not as loud as this other guy. Fortunately, the movie itself was generally louder, what with all the battle scenes. Also, the ticket clerk accidentally gave me a ticket for Tintin instead of War Horse. It wasn't a problem with the usher, though now I guess this means I'll have two Tintin tickets (after I see it, of course). Maybe I should've snuck into a Tintin screening afterwards, but I was really hungry and wanted to eat.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's the Movie of My Life Blogathon!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that was kind of a last-minute thing, and certainly not one I intended to be taken seriously: imagining who would play me in the pretend movie based on my life story. Turned out that people liked it, for which I'm grateful of course, but also, the idea was floated that it would make a good subject for a blogathon.

Well, what can I say except that I'm game if you are!

So welcome to the Movie of My Life Blogathon! As in the original post, the main objective is to imagine who could play you in a theoretical movie about your life, but I'm gonna expand further on it. You can approach this in one of two ways: you can do what I did, and simply make a list of actors who conceivably could capture your essential nature on screen and why. One commenter suggested the I'm Not There route - going totally abstract with your casting. If you think you can do that, fine, but you'll definitely have to explain your choices!

Your second option is casting your family and/or friends in addition to yourself, but if you do that, here's the caveat: I want you to take a specific event from a specific period in your life - high school prom, wedding day, moving to a new neighborhood, etc. - and cast accordingly. So if you decide to pick a period from when you were, say, ten years old, or sixteen, you'll have to pick an age-appropriate actor.

Be creative. Maybe you're not the star of this movie. Maybe this is set in your future (if you think you can project that far ahead into your life). Maybe you can cast it with actors from the 50s. Whatever you like is fine as long as you keep it grounded in the real world; no sci-fi or fantasy elements.

Post it on your blog and send the link to me at ratzo318 (at) yahoo (dot) com, and on Friday, February 3, I'll put up all the submissions. Your banner is up above.

My Hometown Blogathon